In the opening moments of The Cook, playing at the Seattle Rep through Dec. 1, I was busy trying to figure out how black each character was. I think the playwright, Eduardo Machado, who is artistic director of New York's INTAR Theatre, where this play was first produced, figured many theatergoers would have the same preoccupation. So the Cook, Gladys (Zabryna Guevara), and her chauffeur husband Carlos (Al Espinosa) dispensed with this curiosity with a few lines of expository dialog.
The Cook is black; her cousins are blacker. Her husband is just black enough to consider himself blacker than the wealthy white family that employs him and his wife, but he's white enough to feel superior to his wife's family. It's a race and class hierarchy familiar to anyone who's seen Gone With the Wind. White people in charge, black people serving them, with the darkest blacks in the most subservient roles. But this opening scene of The Cook is not in the antebellum South, it's in 1958 Havana, on the eve of the Cuban Revolution.
I found the most compelling elements of the play to be the clues to Cuba's history. The midnight flight of Batista and his rich friends. The ascension of servants to high positions in government. The deadly targeting of gays, inspired by Castro's visit to China. And, today, the entrepreneurial cottage industries Cuban families have devised to attract an element Castro initially sought to exclude: tourists.
The interpersonal drama of the play was not nearly as captivating. Maybe because Guevara is so effusive and efficient as Gladys, her comrades seem a bit cartoonish by comparison. From the beginning, Carlos is The Annoying Husband. Gladys is frantic, as she has a house full of rich people to feed, and she falls behind in her work. Carlos sabotages her, eating the sandwiches and ice cream she has prepared and districting Gladys with arguments and racist comments about – well, everyone.
Gladys' cousins (the beautiful Jessica Pimentel and A.K. Murtadha) are working in the house as servers; they mean well, but they're immature and somewhat bungling. The lady of the house, Adria (Yetta Gottesman), is porcelain white and emotionally unavailable. Even when she flees Cuba in the middle of her own party, she shows only enough fear to engender sympathy from Gladys – not from the audience. Gottesman returns in the final act as Adria's daughter Lourdes, all grown up 40 years later. For Gladys it's an extremely poignant moment; she mistakes Lourdes for Adria, of course; for this audience member, the double-casting of mother and daughter felt like a telenovela trick.
Food is a metaphor for the Revolution throughout. When Carlos is still a chauffeur, he eats the food of the rich because he doesn't believe it truly belongs to them. When he rises to the position of undersecretary in the Ministry of Transportation, he greedily eats Gladys' cooking even as he betrays her. And when Carlos is relieved of his duties, the audience finally sees him do real work. He assists Gladys in the kitchen, as he relies on her talent to support him and Rosa, the daughter he had outside of their marriage. Rosa (also played by Pimentel), introduced in the final act, adores Gladys.
The ease of their relationship feels a bit too convenient. As does the food metaphor at times. Theatergoers with good seats will be pleased, though, that the Cook really does cook. Some will smell the onions from and lime juice in Gladys' Chicken, which she makes for tourists who come to eat in the home she has cared for over four decades.
One metaphor that's a bit more subtle is that of Carlos' skin color. Before the Revolution, he is a light bronze. When he wins his job in the Ministry of Transportation, his skin pales to a shade closer to Adria's. And finally, when he's an old man, doing the real work that keeps the Cuban economy viable, his skin is almost as dark as Gladys'. Gladys points out that the beneficiaries of the Revolution were mostly white men. Carlos, it seems, is black after all.
Carlos is a stubborn old brotha, and he has the nerve to lecture Gladys and Rosa on what he believes truly alienates man from man: class. As fixated as he has been on race, he believes it's an artificial division. Class, he says, is the last taboo.
Vancouver novelist Douglas Coupland says loneliness is the last taboo. It's an aspect of Gladys I would have liked to have felt more. Decades of marriage to a man she doesn't love, caring for her husband's daughter from an affair, and a final, painful meeting with Adria's offspring could make great buildup for a monologue. But there were too many cooks in the kitchen. The only person I really wanted to hear from at the end of the final act was Gladys, alone with her regrets. Instead, the playwright has Rosa and Carlos turn us, and Gladys, away from that pain.
I say bring the pain. Gladys is a strong enough character, and Guevara a strong enough actor, to serve it up hot. Instead I'll just have to imagine how Gladys got through the rest of the night, and the next day, and the one after that.