Diplomatic relations between the United States and Fidel Castro’s Cuba were lukewarm at best, but for a few years starting the mid 1960s there was a ray of sunlight. The government-authorized Freedom Flights (in Spanish, Los vuelos de la Libertad), which allowed Cubans to safely relocate, via commercial jet, from Havana to Miami.
Aboard one of these flights, in December, 1969 was 10-year-old JL Rey, his parents and his sister. The family settled in New York City.
It would be a dozen years before JL arrived in Tampa Bay. Today he’s known for his close association with Stageworks Theatre, where he has directed dozens of shows, many of them (including In the Time of the Butterflies and Anna in the Tropics) as part of the company’s Hispanic Initiative. This was created to engage the area’s large Latin community with show that speak directly to them (both figuratively and literally, as many are performed in both Spanish and English).
Rey is also an accomplished actor and singer – and storyteller. Tuesday (Sept. 12) he’ll be at Stageworks with Cubiche, an autobiographical cabaret, backed by a four-piece band.
“Cubiche” is a Cuban term of endearment, Rey explains. “It’s owning you Cuban-ness and being proud of it.”
The show is a collection of songs and stories following the trajectory of his life and career (he has also appeared on TV and in films, and has performed in regional theaters across the country). “Along the way, there have been many funny things that have happened,” he says. “And interesting things. And songs that have affected me, and moved me in different ways. And so I connect the stories to a particular song.”
He grew up in a city called Regla, across the bay from Havana. “We were a very poor family,” Rey recalls. “My father was a construction worker, and he would get jobs on the side. Communist officials would hire him to build their houses in the country, or to do repairs for them. And so he was able to gather enough supplies to actually build the house that we lived in.”
His mother and father, he says, were “very much in love with each other.” In Cubiche, he sings a song called “¿Y tú qué has hecho?,” which he remembers Mom and Dad singing to one another as they did the evening dishes.
“For me, being so young, the culture shock wasn’t as severe as it was for my parents. Kids are very resilient and able to adapt. I fell in love with the English language – it felt like a puzzle to me, because so many words are spelled one way and pronounced another. And words that have the same spelling mean different things. Also, my parents encouraged my sister and me to become as American as possible.
“My father loved the United States, and he was very proud when he became an American citizen. As did I.”
The performance bug bit him early, and in 1982 he relocated to Tampa and quickly became an integral part of the theater community. After 25 years, he moved back to New York as a professional, and did well there. But the theater shutdown of pandemic 2020 sent him back to Tampa, to be near friends and family.
He still works in New York and gets hired for regional theater gigs. With an airport close by, he points out, the traveling is easy.
Stageworks’ 2023-24 season includes Thornton Wilder’s classic Our Town, with newly-commissioned (by the Wilder estate) dialogue in Spanish and Creole French. Rey will portray the patriarch of the Hispanic family.
“We’re hoping to bring Cubiche back during the run of Our Town, on the days off,” Rey says, “and reach out to the Latino audience that way as well.”
Cubiche info and tickets here.