Salsa, Santería bring Dancing Graves to life

Dancing Graves: The Story of an Afro-Cuban Family on Chicago’s West Side delves into the religious beliefs of the Afro-Cuban population and the growing concerns of a community torn apart by violence.

By Marcella Delaurentiis

With Halloween just around the corner, zombies, ghosts, and ghouls are the topic of much talk. Along with trick-or-treating and visits to haunted houses, a more sinister and superstitious practice starts to crop up around the end of the month: excursions to graveyards, on missions of trickery or just plain old fright. But for some, the thought of the dead returning to this world is something to be celebrated, not feared.

Dancing Graves: The Story of an Afro-Cuban Family on Chicago’s West Side, which premieres Saturday night at International House, is a theatrical performance that combines uncommon views of the afterlife present in Afro-Cuban religious customs with a moving narrative about one family’s trials in a new country.

In the wake of a destructive hurricane, Mercedes and her family flee Cuba for the United States. When Mercedes’s mother passes away, the family finds consolation in its Afro-Cuban heritage and in its culture’s view of death and the afterlife. According to Afro-Cuban religious mythology, the dead do not travel to the afterworld, but to a cemetery where they meet three Afro-Cuban deities known as orishas. After this encounter, the dead return to reside among the living, an idea that challenges Western conceptions of mortality.

Elizabeth Pérez, co-producer of Dancing Graves, described the performance as a “celebration,” like the Afro-Cuban religious ceremonies themselves, and not a solemn occasion. According to Pérez, the inexplicable nature of death “brings forth a terror and fear. [That] ignorance of what comes next is expressed in the performance through dance,” and is ultimately answered by the powerful Afro-Cuban religious traditions of Santería and spiritualism.

Dancing Graves delves into the religious beliefs of the Afro-Cuban population and the growing concerns of a community torn apart by violence. It seeks to convey the sense of community present among Afro-Cuban families while at the same time promoting cross-cultural understanding. Executive Producer Jadele McPherson stresses this aspect of building cross-cultural relations and how the play’s narrative allows listeners to explore the “deeper sense of faith” in an era when different religions can be practiced openly for the first time without fear of persecution and ridicule. “By building our own understanding and breaking barriers,” McPherson said, “we can create a unique and powerful perspective on what this religious practice means within the city of Chicago.”

Dance is also an integral part of daily life in the Afro-Cuban community and Dancing Graves is expected to bring, as Pérez put it, “a little different flavor to campus.” Pérez added, “The rhythms from these religious dances are the background to contemporary dances such as salsa and meringue…music you wouldn’t expect.” The live drumming and high-energy rhythms are meant to make audience members feel welcomed to the celebration, as McPherson puts it, “like they are not excluded…but part of a second family.” So welcomed, in fact, that McPherson hopes the audience will suddenly find itself in the heart of a Cuban living room.

McPherson and Pérez interviewed members of the Afro-Cuban community and then turned the results into sound pieces that accompany the music. These interviews make the concept of Afro-Cuban religion intelligible to someone with no background knowledge. McPherson notes, however, that this performance can also help those who have practiced this form of religion for years to “take a look at what these traditions mean personally,” and gain a greater sense of belonging by seeing generations-old folklore retold on stage.

Dancing Graves features a line-up of vastly talented singers and musicians from Chicago, New York City, Washington, D.C., and Miami. Brought together for one night only, these performers hope to illuminate the religious mythology about the afterlife that is central to Santería in a way that fosters acceptance and cultural awareness.

Dancing Graves: The Story of an Afro-Cuban Family on Chicago’s West Side challenges Western perspectives of death by highlighting Afro-Cuban religious beliefs through song and dance. This performance should provide the city of Chicago with a clear perspective on an often misunderstood religion. The Afro-Cuban emphasis on death as a celebration rather than as a time for sadness, coupled with its focus on building and maintaining a sense of shared community, is sure to prove interesting to believers and non-believers alike. Ultimately, Dancing Graves will provoke thought and, even, understanding.