Spain established several Catholic celebrations in Cuba, like the Corpus Christi procession and ceremony. Later other, more profane, elements were incorporated. Africans, especially, participated with their expressive customs. In the 16th Century this provoked protests from the colonial authorities regarding the presence of non religious elements and, particularly, those taken from African religions.
Among the most important ways of preserving the customs and traditions of the African slaves brought to Cuba were the cabildos. These institutions played a major role in integrating the slaves into colonial life. “From Seville to the Indies, wherever there was a large group of Africans, came the black cabildos and guilds reproducing metropolitan organization,” wrote Don Fernando Ortiz, the greatest scholar of Afro-Cuban culture. They celebrated festivals of Catholic saints in the religious or profane ways of their native lands. At celebrations In these cabildos, members sometimes acted scenes and dances parodying the kings and queens, always to the beat of the drums from their native lands.
African roots were especially important in the Afro- Cuban Epiphany festival. It was one of the first and most obvious examples of colonial theatre in which the actors were slaves. Fernando Ortiz left us with a vivid description of those celebrations: A unique day in which the cabildos of African blacks and their descendants joined together for, what we would call today, a great “happening”. The entire city became an unimaginable stage only comparable to some carnivals of European cities. Those Epiphany parties were antecedents of the Caribbean carnivals.
We, like Ortiz, can consider the ceremonies of the different religions of African origin practiced in Cuba as theatre; among them those of Santería, Palomonte and the Secret Abakuá Society.
In the sacred places where different religions of African origin are conserved and circulated, the syncretism with Catholicism is represented in a ritual theatre, invisible to neophytes, where mythology based in a rich tradition of oral literature has its expression in performance ritual.
Additionally, the theatre of “relations”, linked to the carnivals of Santiago de Cuba in which mostly black and mulattos participate with some poor whites, is another example of African theatre, to comedy theatre unrelated to commercial acting.