‘Havana Madrid’ imagines lost chapter in Chicago’s Latino history

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Sandra Delgado stars in “La Havana Madrid” at The 1700 Theater at Steppenwolf. | Photo: Joel Maisonet

If you happen to be in Chicago’s Lake View neighborhood any time soon you might want to stand at the corner of Belmont and Sheffield and look up to the second floor of the building on the intersection’s southeast corner now occupied by Milio’s Hair Salon. Then use your imagination —turning back the clock to 1960 or so when that second floor space was home to La Havana Madrid, a Latin social club and nightclub where Cubans — followed by an immigrant population from Puerto Rico, the wider Caribbean and Colombia —gathered to dance, listen to the music of their homelands and speak their first language, Spanish.

‘La Havana Madrid’ When: April 14 – May 28 Where: Teatro Vista at The 1700 Theatre at Steppenwolf, 1700 N. Halsted Tickets: $15 – $45 Info: www.steppenwolf.org

If your imagination is not quite up to the task just let actress-writer Sandra Delgado do the work for you. In her new play, “La Havana Madrid” —a Teatro Vista production to be performed April 14 – May 21 at The 1700 Theatre at Steppenwolf — she reimagines the long-defunct place she had heard about only in the sketchiest terms from her parents, who arrived in Chicago from Colombia in 1965, and for a time lived down the street from the club. In the process, she explores a chapter of Chicago’s Latino history that has been all but lost.

“As I started working on this project, I realized there was no mention of this part of Latino history in Chicago to be found anywhere,” said Delgado, who not only conceived and wrote the show, but also plays the title character —the singer, host and “mystical figure” who conjures vibrant songs and true stories of the people who found refuge in the club. “So the show has become a quasi-documentary-style vision of what was once a real-life melting pot entertainment venue.”

“For example, it is all but unknown that the area between the lakefront and Devon on Belmont Avenue had quite a significant Cuban population that arrived here before the Revolution, and quietly helped others flee the island after it,” said Delgado. “In the early ’60s there also was a large Puerto Rican barrio in what was kind of a Skid Row area located where the highrises of Sandburg Village now stand. But the Puerto Ricans kept getting pushed further westward —first into Lincoln Park, and then to Logan Square and Humboldt Park, and the process continues.”

Delgado also discovered that while the library was short on information about La Havana Madrid, Facebook could be a major resource.

“As soon as I got out the word about the club and my plans for the show, I started getting messages like ‘Oh, my parents went there.’ And just a couple of weeks ago I heard from a woman whose father had been connected with the club. I also made a connection with Carlos Flores, a longtime photographer in the Puerto Rican community who inspired the character of Carlos in the play.”

Delgado learned La Havana Madrid was opened by Luis “Witto” Aloma, a Cuban-born player for the White Sox in the early 1950s, who wanted his fellow Cubans to have a place where they could come to drink coffee and play cards and dominoes. Eventually it morphed into a more lavish operation with a beautiful dining room featuring Cuban musical acts and a full Cuban/Spanish menu.

“Along the way the ownership changed hands as Tony Quintana, a very respected Puerto Rican radio and television personality, businessman and activist [host of the 1960s radio show “Tony’s Latin A-Go-Go”], took it over,” said Delgado. ” I also found out that all the vintage footage from that show had been thrown away. And if you are not documented it’s as if you never existed.” (Quintana will be played by Chicago comedian and producer Mike Oquendo, along with a cast that includes Cruz Gonzalez-Cadel, Tommy Rivera-Vega, Marvin Quijada, Donovan Diaz, Phoebe González and Krystal Ortiz.)

Mike Oquendo will play Tony in “La Havana Madrid.”| Photo: Courtesy of Teatro Vista

Mike Oquendo will play Tony in “La Havana Madrid.”| Photo: Courtesy of Teatro Vista

Delgado, who credits director Cheryl Lynn Bruce with shaping every element of the play’s text, describes her play-with-music this way: “Through a handful of stories it offers a window into a bygone era, and creates a link to La Havana Madrid [which closed in 1971], even if no other records of it exist.”

The actress also had very specific requirements for the venue where it needed to be performed, explaining: “I wanted to have a bar and clublike atmosphere to simulate the original Havana Madrid, rather than traditional seating. I also wanted to be in a neighborhood close to one I was examining, even if its inhabitants were now totally off the map.” So the recently opened 1700 Theater at Steppenwolf, a flexible 80-seat venue in the space adjacent to Steppenwolf’s mainstage, fit the bill ideally.

And then there was the matter of music, which, as Delgado explained, “changed over time at the club, moving from the original mambo, cha-cha and romantic boleros, and all the African rhythms of Cuban music, to the salsa sound that really was born in the U.S. and is kind of a multicultural baby.”

Delgado will sing most of the show’s songs in Spanish, with the actors moving into the spotlight with monologues, and the music interwoven into their stories. Legendary Colombian-American musician Roberto “Carpacho” Marin, joined by Carpacho y su Super Combo, his band of 30 years, will perform live at every show, with Carpacho’s own story serving as one of the play’s vignettes.

NOTE: Following the run at Steppenwolf, “La Havana Madrid” will be remounted during the first two weekends in June at The Miracle Center, 2311 N. Pulaski, a community arts center in the Belmont-Cragin neighborhood.“Those performances will be more reasonably priced, with an audience for which Steppenwolf is not even on the radar,” said Delgado. “And my fantasy is that the show eventually will travel to many other Latino neighborhoods in Chicago and beyond.”

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