Henry Godinez Credit: Peter Wynn Thompson

Born in Cuba, Henry Godinez came to the U.S. with his family when he was three years old. “I literally was Cuban-American: Cuban at home and American at school,” says Godinez, now an associate professor at Northwestern and, since 2003, curator of the Goodman Theatre’s biennial Latino Theatre Festival, whose fifth edition starts Saturday. He studied acting at the universities of Dallas and Wisconsin, specializing in Shakespeare and classical theater. But in 1985 Godinez performed in Broken Eggs by Cuban-born playwright Eduardo Machado, and, he recalls, “woke up to the potential of exploring my heritage through theater.”

In 1990, he and Eddie Torres founded Teatro Vista here in Chicago—a move that led Godinez, paradoxically, to the Goodman. “What we wanted to do at Teatro Vista was cross over, and celebrate who we were, but with all people,” he says. “And so the idea was to go to the belly of the beast and say, ‘We deserve to have these stories told at the Goodman.’ Luckily the Goodman agreed.”

For this year’s fest, Godinez directs The Sins of Sor Juana by Karen Zacarías, the tale of a 17th-century nun persecuted for her writing. Among the other highlights are two productions by Cuba’s Teatro Buendía.

Any trouble getting visas for the Cubans?

Not so far. We started a long time ago and we secured a great immigration lawyer, a guy named Bill Martinez, and every step of the way everything has been smooth. We had figured that under Obama the atmosphere would be a little more positive.

So you’ve noticed a change? Because you started the festival during the Bush administration.

We tried then. I was in Cuba in 2003, right after the first festival. I saw a production by Teatro Buendía and I went, “My God, these people are amazing.” I came back and we contacted Bill Martinez, and he said, “You know what, I’m not even going to take your money. It’s not gonna happen.”

So then when Barack was elected I called Bill and I said, “What do you think?” And he said, “I think you could have them.” We started the process well over a year ago and every step of the way it’s been good. And now we’re at the very last one. Everything is in D.C. now, and waiting for the final stamp from Homeland Security and the State Department.

Is the Cuban government encouraging?

Yeah. They had to start by getting the green light from the ministry in Havana. It helps that Flora Lauten, Buendía’s artistic director, is considered a special person in Cuba because she was the last Miss Cuba, in 1962, and then she used her celebrity to promote the revolution. She would go into the campo—to the countryside—and promote the revolution. Over the years, like so many artists in Cuba, she became somewhat disillusioned, as you can imagine. Buendía has played all over the world, and they haven’t defected. They love Cuba and they’re committed to living there, but their work also is not shy about pointing out the failures of the revolution, the difficulties of the situation there now.

What are the pieces they’re bringing?

Generally, they’ve been, in recent years, doing these very loose original adaptations of Western classics. They’re bringing their version of Dürrenmatt’s The Visit, called La Visita de la Vieja Dama—the story of this young girl who becomes pregnant, who then is kicked out of her village and 40 years later comes back. And the village has fallen on hard times, and in the meantime this woman has gone off and become incredibly wealthy, and they hear that she’s coming back and they’re hoping that she’ll use her wealth to rejuvenate them. In the meantime, the boy who got her pregnant is now the mayor. She comes back and says, “Sure. I’ll spread my wealth. But I want revenge. I want the mayor’s head on a platter.”

You think about the situation in Cuba, you go, “Oh.” You start seeing the Cuban exile community as the woman who’s wanting to come back with all her wealth, and the impoverished village fallen on hard times that’s hoping that she’ll use her wealth. Their other production is similarly a very loose adaptation of Marat/Sade, called Charenton.

Did you have to tread any lines in bringing them here? The exile community in the U.S.?

Luckily, not here in Chicago. In my own family? Yes. [Laughs.] I’ve gotten flak from some of my own siblings—very passive aggressive comments, because, generally speaking, the thinking in my family and in the exile Cuban-American community is that we wouldn’t return to Cuba until Castro was dead. But I’m also the only theater artist in my family, and for me there is a clear divide between politics and art and culture. I just feel that cultural exchange and the arts open things up and that it goes against every spiritual rule of art to allow politics to divide us.

But art does become a political act.

It can, it can. I think there are those who would look at La Visita de la Vieja Dama, certainly, as a political statement. But first and foremost it’s an artistic expression. And I guess what I’m saying is that even when an artistic expression is a comment on the political or social situation of your community, that should be your right as much as breathing. I think history has shown us in eastern Europe that when you take away other rights, it’s like a volcano: all the pressure is going to go to this outlet, this artistic expression. It will out.

Speaking of political context, this year marks the centennial of the Mexican revolution, and the festival’s taken that on to some extent.

To some extent.

And that’s so fraught now, especially since the anti-immigration law was passed in Arizona. Does that issue figure into the way you perceive this festival?

What’s happened in Arizona has happened since the festival was planned, but I think that there are elements in the festival that indirectly address that. We resisted the temptation to say the theme of the festival is revolution—but unofficially, it is. To me, Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz was a revolutionary. She caused more change by picking up a pen than she ever would’ve if she picked up a gun. To me, that’s revolution. That’s resistance. She resisted the church and the society of that time determining what a woman should be, what a woman could write. She said, “No.” So they persecuted her, they burned her books, they took all her papers and quills.

Buendía, similarly, is a nontraditional representation of revolution, because the company has gone through the whole arc of revolution—initially supporting the Cuban revolution, and now, 50 years later, they love their country . . . but they are also not willing to not do what art should do, which is to reflect their society.

Their revolutionary stance is to tell the truth.

Exactly. Even if their own revolution may not see that it’s appropriate.

Do you feel a need to make sure that there’s work that’s being done in Spanish?

Yes. One, I think that there are audiences here that still feel more comfortable in Spanish—although, when I think of audience development here at the Goodman, specifically, that’s not necessarily my target audience. But I also think that there are non-Latino audiences that love seeing theater in other languages, and specifically in Spanish. That’s also why I’m such a huge supporter of Aguijón Theater Company, because they only produce in Spanish. They’re on the west side, they’re a great theater, and they’ve been in the festival every year. I love those guys because the work is amazing and it’s always in Spanish, so I feel that they fill a really vital niche. But in the festival, absolutely: I think that there always has to be Spanish because that’s part of what we’re celebrating.

Have you ever gotten a negative response for that from the Goodman audience?

No, not in the festival. I got negative response—not a lot, but some—when we did Electricidad [in 2004], which was basically written in Spanglish. A few very snide comments, letters. But that doesn’t deter us.