Dr. Roberto Pomo’s new play, “Che Guevara and the Dispossessed,” has been a long time in the making. In some ways, the production, which had its world premiere this week at California State University, Sacramento, has been forming in Pomo’s mind for most of his life.
A native Argentinian like Guevara, Pomo was fascinated by his legendary countryman, even as the Marxist revolutionary and guerrilla leader was despised by Pomo’s parents. “Che was persona non grata in Latin America,” said Pomo, a professor of theater history and film studies at CSUS. “In my household he was a murderer, a Communist.”
Guevara was a seminal figure in Fidel Castro’s 26th of July Movement and its revolution against the government of Cuban President Fulgencio Batista, which they forcibly overthrew in 1959, turning Cuba into a socialist state.
Pomo, 64, has turned his lifetime of fascination with Guevara and more than 15 years of research into an impressionistic, multimedia piece that he wrote and directed. It runs through Nov. 24 in the university’s Playwrights’ Theatre.
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Pomo was 13 when his family emigrated from Argentina. “It was July of 1963,” he said. “I remember flying over Cuba and the pilot saying, ‘Right below, you can see the island of Cuba.’ I was aware of the Cuban missile crisis. I was aware of Che and I remember looking out the window thinking, ‘That’s Cuba. That’s where Che Guevera is.’”
Pinpointing Guevara on the stage proved a more elusive task for Pomo, who had begun turning the years of research into dramatic sequences, but still hadn’t focused on a particular narrative.
“I had started writing scenes, this was 5 or 6 years ago, but I’d stashed them away,” Pomo said. “I was doing administration, I was teaching, and I wondered if shouldn’t write this academic book I’d been working on.”
With a sabbatical approaching, one of Pomo’s colleagues pressed him “to do what I would really love to do,” so he committed to the Che project, and his play exploring the fact and fiction of this controversial and charismatic leader began taking shape.
“I read numerous biographies, read all his published documents both in Spanish and in English – his journals, his writings on political ideology, guerrilla warfare,” Pomo said of Guevara. “He was committed to social welfare, he was committed to feeding the hungry, looking out for the dispossessed. There was this balance.”
Part of Guevara’s mythology comes from the fact that he was man of many parts.
In 1951, while still in medical school, Guevara took a life-changing 9-month motorcycle trip with a friend through Argentina, Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Panama and the United States.
Guevara’s journal notes from the trip eventually became a book called “The Motorcycle Diaries,” a New York Times best-seller that was made into a 2004 film of the same name.
The poverty he encountered on that trip, and the working conditions of miners at the American-owned Anaconda Chuquicamata copper mine, convinced Guevara that the colonialism and imperialism in Latin America had created a continent that needed liberation from its oppressors. As he finished medical school, Guevara was already on a collision course with capitalist ideology.
“He was a medical doctor, he was a photographer, he wrote poetry,” Pomo said of Guevara. “His personality was very complex to me.”
Pomo researched Guevara’s complicated relationships, both personal and political, including “his love affairs, his relationship to his two wives, his relationship to Fidel Castro, his hatred toward the USSR and the United States, his darker moments, all that.”
In “Che Guevara and the Dispossessed, “I have two Che’s – young Che and the mature Che,” Pomo said. “The mature Che is interrogated by the inquisitor who is a CIA/Army official.”
The inquisitor role is based on Félix I. Rodríguez. “He actually wrote a book that was published by Simon and Shuster called ‘Shadow Warrior,’” Pomo said.
After reading his book, Pomo wrote to the retired CIA officer, who eventually responded and invited the professor for a visit in Miami. Pomo spoke to Rodríguez at the Bay of Pigs Museum and his security-heavy home in Miami.
“After I interviewed him ... that changed the progression of the script because (Rodríguez) became such an interesting character,” Pomo said.
In the production, “Young Che” is played by Russell Dow, “Mature Che” is played by Amir Sharafeh and the inquisitor called Felix Ramos is played by Thomas Dean. “As I wrote the play, it developed into all these characters – parts of them products of my imagination,” Pomo said.
Not wanting “Dispossessed” to become just a “bio play,” Pomo decided to weave various visual mediums into the production. “I wanted it to be an impressionistic landscape, so I decided to bring in cinematic images,” he said. “Throughout the play, we have some 160 images.”
The production employs three projection screens for the imagery, which comes from photographs, documentary footage and YouTube videos. There is also live video.
“We have two video cameras, so there are certain scenes where you see the actor on stage, and we’re emphasizing the psychological dimensions with close-ups, high angles, low angles, skewed angles – so its a hyper-media event too,” Pomo said.
The production incorporates staff, students and faculty.
“Che was so dynamic, so good-looking,” Pomo said. “The Cuban revolution was one of the most important political changes in Latin America. Now ... Fidel Castro, for practical purposes, is still there. (But) Che Guevara’s image is still on the walls in Cuba.”
CHE GUEVARA AND THE DISPOSSESSED
What: The world premiere of the multimedia theater performance by Roberto Pomo
Where: California State University Sacramento’s Playwrights’ Theatre
When: 8 p.m. Friday , Saturday and Nov. 22-23; 6:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday; and 2 p.m. Sunday and Nov. 24.