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Carmelita Tropicana, the self-proclaimed "songbird of Cuba," came to life in the early 1980s at New York's WOW Cafe, that "home for wayward girls," and immediately became a fixture of the East Village performance scene. She hosted her popular talk show, Cheet Chat with Carmelita, at Uzi Parnes and Ela Troyano's Club Chandelier, interviewing anyone and everyone willing to endure her charm or her infamous chicken sushi. Her early theatre pieces were performed at WOW, P.S. 122, La Mama, and other alternative spaces in New York City. Her first play, Memories of the Revolution (1987), was cowritten with Parnes, a veteran of the East Village performance scene. The Boiler Time Machine, a musical commissioned through Intar's Musical Theatre Workshop, with music by Fernando Rivas, had a staged reading in 1986 and was later adapted for solo performance. She has collaborated with Troyano, a filmmaker and her sister, on Candela/Azucar (1988), and with Parnes on 7he Conquest of Mexico as Seen through the Eyes of Hernando Cortez's Horse (1992) and Carnaval (1993). She also cowrote with Troyano the screenplay for Ela's film Carmelita Tropicana: Your Kunst Is Your Waffen (1993), winner of several prestigious awards.
All of Carmelita Tropicana's work is accented by her outrageous, and at times unsettling humor. Ten years ago, before the rage for the new queer politics and theory, C. Carr placed Carmelita Tropicana on "the queer frontier." Tropicana's work, along with the work of her friend, the performer and playwright Holly Hughes, began to carve out for Carr what was in 1985 a new "territory--rude, wacky, politically incorrect, sleazy, and overtly sexual--a place where lesbians, suddenly confident in their inappropriateness, are allowing themselves to roam for the first time" (1993:87). Carmelita's Milk of Amnesia 1994), which premiered in New York at P.S. 122 in the far of 1994 under Ela Troyano's direction, employs many of the characteristic traits of her extensive performance career. The familiar romp of characters from earlier pieces-Pingalito, the self-inflated Cuban man; Arriero, Cortez's whining horse; and the now notorious Carmelita herself--roam the stage in a 70-minute performance piece best described as a difficult but joyous reclamation of identity.
In this interview, which I conducted in my New York City apartment in January 1995, Carmelita reveals the layers of identity that frame her performances--performances that range beyond the physical confines of the traditional stage and extend into her own psyche. Alina Troyano arrives on the scene to explain the process and performance of her alter ego, Carmelita Tropicana, and to restore her agency in the production of her own history. By the end of all this processing, we are left with the uncanny palpability of Carmelita Tropicana unplugged.
ROMAN: Let's start at the beginning. Tell me about your entrance into New York's downtown performance scene the early WOW days, the East Village clubs--places that hosted, as Carr describes them, "incandescent evening[s] of incongruous acts" [1993:xvi].
TROPICANA: I went to WOW looking for girls and found something more long-lasting: theatre. In 1982 I went to the WOW Festival to see Split Britches. At WOW I saw all kinds of women, in all kinds of clothes and haircuts and colors--not just your battle-fatigue serious feminist! It was wonderful. And they had a sense of humor! The play Split Britches, written and performed by Peggy Shaw, Lois Weaver, and Deb Margolin, was the most wonderful thing I had ever seen; for me it was like Waiting for Godot a la "women's style." I laughed my head off. It was very inspirational.
ROMAN: How did you hear about WOW?
TROPICANA: Somebody told me about it and I had also seen something about WOW in a women's newspaper. I was …