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Heartbeat: An Interview with Toby Campion

Por Nohan Meza
October 2019

La Voz magazine and iD Studio theatre present Cumbia de mi Corazón, a Spanish-language play with English subtitles coming to the Hudson Valley Oct. 18-20 in Kingston, Bard College, and Poughkeepsie respectively. Written by Toby Campion and directed by Germán Jaramillo. Toby, resident of Red Hook, speaks to us about why this play had to happen, and what it means to us, as human beings, to think of the great beyond.
Nohan Meza: What is Cumbia de mi Corazón about?
Toby Campion: The recurring thematic is this: Where one puts their heart, there goes their life. So this man, Heriberto, finds himself in the great beyond. He’s a very stubborn man, hard-headed, and says that without his wife he’s not going anywhere. His wife hasn’t died yet, she’s still with us. So the play begins the day the wife, Maruca, dies. But when she gets there, she doesn’t recognize him due to the Alzheimer’s she suffered in life. And he’s been waiting for 50 years! So he dedicates himself to rescuing the heart and mind of the woman that was his wife, and the only way of doing it, is through music. After writing the play, lots of people wrote to me saying that the section of the brain that recognizes music is not affected as strongly by Alzheimer’s  and they can remember their good times through music. Now they use that as therapy. I wasn’t aware of this when writing.

NM: Why do you believe music endures when the rest is forgotten?
TC: Music puts us in contact with the invisible world. Music leads us, through the melody, the notes, the rhythm, to a sublime sensation. And it’s not music by Beethoven or by Mozart, it’s popular music. The ones who created this were able to communicate the best of human life without using words, but instead using the pure rhythm and the movement it induces in all of us. Then, when I studied cumbia, I discovered it was a mixture of three cultures. The drum is the base, which is actually African. The millo flute they play is native to the indigenous people off the Caribbean coast of Colombia. And the verse, that’s Spanish. These three threads they wove into something new, what we call cumbia. And listening to that music, I began getting ideas.

NM: Are there difficulties when trying to produce a Spanish-language play?
TC: An original play in Spanish . . . yes. They present renowned works, from Lorca or some of Márquez’s stories. But the Bilingual Organization of the Arts didn’t want our play under their logo. We had to find our own funding. The interesting thing about all this was that it arrived at the hands of Germán Jaramillo, who lives in New York. He spoke to the producer and said, “I’m interested.” The producer quickly got back to him, thanking him, but said our budget didn’t allow us the capability to fly a director from New York to California and pay lodging and six weeks of production. Germán answered, “I don’t care. When it’s about my culture, I go.” So if there’s anything I would like to emphasize, it’s that: my sincere and profound thanks to Germán.
NM: You were born in Ohio and grew up in New York. Why do you write about Latin American culture?
TC: It was the sixties, and I dedicated myself much more to protesting against Vietnam than studying. I had already decided that if I got drafted, I would go to Mexico. But then I woke up one day and realized, how will I go to Mexico if I don’t speak Spanish?! So I bought a Spanish grammar book. Two months later, I met my future wife, Anita. Like lightning we dashed through our dating phase and got married in Mexico City. Shortly after I realized that I had fallen in love with two things: of a pretty woman with a kind heart and lots of wisdom, but also with a culture, Mexican culture and Latin American culture in general. That has been my pillar ever since.

NM: That curiosity existed before you met your wife though.
TC: I’ll tell you something very strange. When I was about 17 I had a dream in which I was speaking Spanish, without having ever studied the language. I think about that dream a lot. Something inside of me was ready, before I had taken the conscious action to dive in.

NM: Do you think art allows us to access that sublime space between the real and the ephemeral?
TC: Art is the bridge that connects us to this other world that surrounds us. We can’t hear it, but it’s always there. It’s merely a matter of tuning in. ‘Cause at the end of the day it’s the same world, and I won’t reveal the end of the play, but he has to realize where he truly is, and accept that he has always been there. While writing the play I had a dream. My father showed up, even though he’s been dead for a while, and tells me, “I’m going to show you something,” but he had a gray color to him, and around us there was a lot of people the looked normal, the color we see. “Us who have the gray color, we are all dead. The rest is like you, living in your world and your time, but we are all in the same place, we just don’t see each other.” So I watched the gray people passing by, going to their jobs with their suitcases, passing by the living people, who were none the wiser. This led me to understand that it’s one world. A Venezuelan teacher of mine who was called Josué Manuel Estrada once said, “Why wait for death if everything you have discover there you can find here right now.“
NM: Why did you choose to talk about something so real and serious like Alzheimer’s through something so ephemeral such as heaven and death?
TC: If God was a dictator, we would all join Him up there in His glory, but He gives us the freedom to choose what path we truly want to follow. Do I follow light or darkness? So I wanted the viewer to also question his own life and say, “What is it that I choose?

NM: Do you think that telling this story through fantasy allows you to say more than through a realist lens?
TC: I don’t have the academic capacity to speak and philosophize about these subjects. I write what I feel, what comes from the heart. This limits me in some ways because I can’t just dive into deep subjects in a linear and direct manner. I have to do it my own way. But one thing happens with theatre: if the play doesn’t entertain, forget about philosophy and what you want to say. If it doesn’t entertain, then you have nothing. The good thing about theatre, which is different from cinema, is that you’re there, with people made of flesh and bone living whatever they’re projecting at that moment.

NM: The play deals with a rather heavy subject, but there’s also a lot of humor. Why was humor important in your play?
TC: When the comedian falls, everyone laughs. Life is that way. I have a rule: when going to the cinema or the theatre, you have to leave the place feeling better than you did when you arrived. Now, that doesn’t mean that everything has to be comical. Tragedies produce a certain elevating feeling within us as well. But how they used to say in Hollywood in the 30’s, it’s easier to sell your message to the public through comedy rather than tragedy. For me, a play without humor is like eating without salt and pepper.

NM: Who needs to watch this play?
TC: People of all ages, ten and up, and belonging to both cultures. For the first time we are presenting with English subtitles so non-Spanish speakers can appreciate the play. But any person that is searching for some transcendental truth in their life, well, I hope this brings in something positive.

 

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