Love in the Time of Covert Ops

Rodney Garza as Che Guevara in The School of the Americas. Courtesy photo
The School of the Americas
8pm Thu-Sat
$10 adult; $6 senior
Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center
1301 Guadalupe

Ernesto “Che” Guevara is an icon: his image haunts dorm-room walls, coffee mugs, finger puppets (yes, hasta siempre, finger puppets) and the ubiquitous T-shirts that pop up in unlikely places (such as a record store in Abilene, Texas) and on the likelier chests of various earnest left-leaning young folks looking to liberate the means of production, or at least to secure the means of reproduction. I have been assured (by sources close to the administration who prefer to remain anonymous) that a semester abroad in Spain is much more enjoyable if you bring along a Che T-shirt. 

      How an Argentine Marxist anti-imperialist revolutionary guerilla became a merchandisable international icon (except in Miami) requires a lengthier discussion — you don’t find many college students expressing their rebellious streak with posters of Villa or Zapata (present company excepted) and Free Tibet bumper stickers rarely evoke violence the way Che does. Despite the violence, or maybe because of it, Che is sexy … except in Miami.

Of course, the trouble with doing a play about an icon is that real actors have a tough time competing with icons. Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center’s production of Jose Rivera’s School of the Americas has to contend with that issue as it presents a fictionalized view of the last day of Che just before he is summarily executed in a schoolhouse in La Higuera, Bolivia. Playwright Rivera is no stranger to Guevara, since he also wrote the screenplay for The Motorcycle Diaries, which chronicled Che’s less-iconic early travels and political nascence and which featured Gael Garcia Bernal as a pre-beret Che.

Here, though, is Che at bay: By the time we meet him he is wounded and bound, a prisoner on his way to a shabby end, as documented by two photographs of Guevara after his capture, one where he is very much alive and another where he is very much dead.

Rodney Garza, who also directs this production, bursts with energy as Che, and Dava Hernandez is brave and dignified as the schoolteacher Julia Cortes, whose classroom is turned into an impromptu prison and execution chamber. They discuss revolution, education, socialism, religion, revolution, love, torture and the CIA — all of the usual first-date talking points. There’s even a little topical Guantanamo reference tucked in there.

It’s difficult at times to differentiate between the preachy dialogue of a dedicated schoolteacher and the preachy dialogue of a playwright, an inevitable result of a play about people who sometimes do speak as if they’re lecturing. But the schoolteacher and the guerilla crack some human emotions and Hernandez carries the play as she shows resolve and human warmth in a part that could easily be overshadowed by the dying Che.     

Complexity comes with Juan Calderon’s Felix Rodriguez, who is surprisingly well-rounded as the ostensible villain of the piece. Rodriguez, a Cuban exile and CIA agent (who memorably testified in Iran-Contra hearings a generation later) is portrayed here as sympathetically as we can expect. Calderon finds the ambiguity inherent in someone who admires his quarry and who is the mouthpiece for the “imperialist” side of the politics. Rodriguez, though, is no mere imperial torturer — he has a real beef with Che over Cuba, and Calderon does a great job of making that conflict human.

This is a play about true believers: Communists, anti-Communists, and teachers. In the end, Che’s death is redeemed by Julia’s determination to continue teaching in La Higuera and Rodriguez is punished by mysteriously acquiring Che’s asthma. School of the Americas is unlikely to change any strongly held opinions about the revolutionary, but it serves to humanize an icon who, love him or hate him, symbolized the desire to match belief with action — for good or ill.