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Fidel Castro declared to the new Cuban state in 1959 that: ‘… nobody can consider themselves to be of pure race, much less superior race …’ (Pérez Sarduy 2005: 3). Racial discrimination was considered anti-nation and citizens were expected to relate to each other through merit, not through perceptions of ethnicity; Castro's statements echoed those of the nineteenth-century Cuban republican, José Martí, who declared that Cubans should transcend race, considering themselves ‘more than white, more than black, Cuban’ (ibid.: 6). The search for Cuban identity beyond race has been a feature of the state since 1959 and only in recent years have real moves been made to celebrate the specificity and diversity of African origins in Cuba.
Approximately ninety different ethnic groups from West and Central Africa were taken to Cuba as slaves between 1502 and 1870; inter-racial relationships were commonplace, but despite this intensive racial mixing, Cuba has traditionally privileged European cultural discourse leaving a certain amount of racial tension, even after the Revolution. Inés M. Martiatu claims that although institutional racism was eliminated at the beginning of the 1960s as part of Revolutionary strategy, prejudices held deeply within the population continue to exist (2000: 204). This article will discuss the African presence in contemporary Cuban theatre. First, it will discuss questions of race within performance from the nineteenth century to the present day, and will then focus on three major areas of performance in Cuba: carnival and popular forms; the use of ritual as structure, plot or content within writing for the stage; and Afro-Cuban religion as a resource for theatre training.