BY BARBRA HERNANDEZVOZ LATINA
OCALA - Chaz Mena cannot conceal his excitement. Even if he wanted to, the joy in his words would be enough to give him away. He speaks of Cuba and its heroes with nostalgic pride. The same one his father, an exiled Cuban, instilled in him as a child.But among all the men and women Mena grew up listening to stories about, the name of José Martí evokes special memories."Martí, to me, is like a family member," Mena said in a telephone conversation. "It's hard to be Cuban and talk about him objectively because it's like talking about an uncle or a cousin."Today, the childhood stories take on a bigger meaning as Mena prepares to embody the renowned Cuban independence leader. The seasoned actor will recreate moments in the life of Martí in the theatrical performance "Charla: A Chat with José Martí". In it, members of the audience will be able to "interact" with the famous political figure.Mena will take the stage at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Central Florida Community College's Webber Center. Admission is free and open to the public.Born in New York to Cuban parents, Mena grew deeply interested in his cultural heritage at an early age. Martí's name, he acknowledges, was as common in the Mena household as that of any other family member.The revolutionary's literature accompanied Mena almost at all times. He especially recalls how, as a drama student in Russia, Martí's poetry served him as inspiration."Every time I read his verses, I pulled out more strength. It restored my spirit," Mena said.All the years of reading and listening about his favorite Cuban leader were but a preamble to Mena's transformation into his latest role. Becoming Martí represented a challenge - one he was not willing to give up.With a research scholarship from the Florida Humanities Council, Mena plunged into Martí's extensive literature, translating and condensing ideas into a 45-minute performance. Most of the script is based on the political discourse "With All and for the Good of All."Remaining objective, Mena says, was the hardest part about a project that took him nearly six months to prepare for."My investigation of the character mostly focused on divorcing the person from the myth," Mena said. "I wanted to focus on a personal level because I had to transform into him ... not an easy thing to do."The presentation follows the Chautauqua style, a theatrical model that was pioneered in New York near the turn of the 19th century. In it, actors recreate the life of a historical figure and interact with the audience as though they were the person they embody.Although Mena in no way denies his admiration of Martí, he says he aimed for a faithful characterization of the revolutionary. Dressed up in an epoch costume and wearing a thick mustache, Mena will receive his audience with one purpose in mind."I want them to learn more about Martí and the sociohistorical context of 1891," he says. "We should not deify our heroes. Instead, we should think about them, or through them."