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Tropical and Topical

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by Isaiah Cunnally

“I saw the first tower collapse. No words could describe what I saw,” said performance artist Elina Troyano to a SAIC audience. Troyano was describing her motivation for doing a performance piece on 9/11. “We ended the show by collectively (with the audience) singing New York, New York.” The audience, she said, got really into it. Elina visited SAIC on Sept 30.

In the 9/11 piece she had the audience describe what they were doing when the towers collapsed. Troyano said those connections are very important to her. “At one performance a women brought up the shoes she was wearing while she was running from ground zero. They were covered in the dust from the victims and from the buildings.”

Elina Troyano has been a performance artist for more than 20 years. She started performing in the ’80s at the Wow Café, a lesbian-oriented venue in New York. It was there that she developed her alter ego, “Carmelita Tropicana,” and developed bonds with other performers. “We were bound together at the Wow Café by a lack of alternative venues elsewhere,” she said.
“Carmelita Tropicana” is the character Troyano is most known for and she has used the character for years. In clips recorded from her past performances, Elina presented Tropicana’s differences and similarities to Troyano. Her created persona is funny and witty but with an exaggerated Cuban accent. Tropicana exemplifies what Elina Troyano uses as her mission statement: “I am Tropical and Topical.”

Troyano’s performing experience was evident in how comfortable she was in front of the audience, which sat not more than a foot away from her.
Troyano showed a recording of her stage performance, “Single Wet Female,” which earned her a nomination for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Discrimination’s Outstanding Theater award. A spoof of the movie “Single White Female,” the performance starred Troyano as the obsessive lesbian roommate of an “average white woman,” played by friend Margot Gomez.

“My character was a very butch lesbian and Margot’s was very fem, which is completely reversed.” During the performance, Troyano’s obsessive roommate calls a pizza company and berates them for putting spices on her roommate’s pizza. “I specificly told them that she was white and she couldn’t handle the spicy stuff!!” Troyano’s character says in a deep grizzly Cuban accent, wearing an orange jump suit.

In the 1980s Troyano said she was often accused of promoting negative Latin stereotypes. To that she sarcastically responded, “A Latin lesbian talking about performance art; yes, very stereotypical.” One of Elina Troyano’s biggest influences is performance artist Jack Smith. Her sister first introduced Troyano to his work. “He was queer in the most wonderful sense of the word,” Troyano said.

Jack Smith’s short film “Flaming Creatures” was judged obscene in New York, and its appeal ended up in the Supreme Court. Troyano found his daring very inspiring. “You have to remember this was before Will and Grace and Ellen.” Troyano said she wasn’t sure someone could get away with some of the stuff he did, even today. “He did this thing where he would arrive hours late for a show, and that would be part of the performance,” she said.
Troyano was so inspired by a performance where he lit the concrete stage on fire and put it out with a plunger, that she later plaid tribute to it in one of her own pieces.

In discussing her future plans, Troyan said she’d eventually like to perform in Cuba. Keeping with her desire to stay topical, Troyano said she would also like to examine the connections to high art (such as performance art) and trash entertainment (such as reality shows). “How does Orland fit in with Extreme Makeover? That guy who stayed nude in an art museum, how does that compete with Fear Factor?” she asked. In the performance space, in front of about twenty students and some faculty, Elina Troyano—aka Carmelita Tropicana—described the tone of her performance style: “I am both tropical and topical.”

Troyano has won much acclaim for her work since her career began in the mid-1980s. She received an Obie award in 1999 and was named “One of the most notable women of 1998” by El Diario. Troyano and her sister Ela Troyano were recognized for Best Short Film at the 1994 Berlin Film festival. Troyano is currently writing a book about the first five years of the Wow Café with friend Hailey Hunter.


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