The Dominican Republic (Spanish: República Dominicana), a Caribbean nation on the island of Hispaniola in the Antilles, is bordered in the north by the Atlantic Ocean, in the east by the Mona Pass, which divides it from Puerto Rico, in the south by the Caribbean Sea and, in the western portion of the island, by the Republic of Haiti. The island was the site of the first permanent European settlement in the Americas and was part of the Spanish Empire until the 19th century. Today, the Dominican Republic is inhabited mostly by people of mixed European and African origins (see Latin America). The capital is Santo Domingo.
The beginnings of theatre in the Antilles can be found in the 16th century, as they are throughout the rest of the continent, and formed part of religious festivities of the period. According to Otto Olivera, “In the beginning it was simply dances, inventions and games which were celebrated on days ordained by church festivals or by landowners; but very soon, during the same century, they became an interplay of playwright and actors.” The first theatre show in Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic, took place in 1588, during the celebrations for Corpus Christi; a sketch was performed by Cristóbal Llenera (born in Santo Domingo, where he died in 1627).
Dominican storytellers and poets took their place in local theatrical history by staging original theatre pieces between 1772 and 1917. Among these were the storytellers José Nuñez de Cáceres (1772-1846), F. Dávila Fernández de Castro (1804-1879), and Manuel del Jesús Peña y Reinoso (1834-1915). The pieces written by these “poet-storytellers”, writes Carmen Bravo Villasante, “are peppered with burlesque daily occurrences of local peasants and comic characters from Spanish theatre. This poetry … is in the form of theatre dialogue.”
Theatre, circus and puppet theatre could also be found present in Santo Domingo. Even though documents within formal archives are scarce, there were always foreign influences, and local activity continued despite many ups and downs.
It was not until the mid-20th century that examples of puppet shows in the Dominican Republic could be traced. By that time there were more actors and more influences, which enriched the history of Dominican theatre and that of puppet theatre, too. The contribution of Carmen Natalia (1817-1976), who adapted the tales of Charles Perrault for the puppet stage, was important. La bella durmiente (Sleeping Beauty) and La Cenicienta (Cinderella) were performed in June 1950 at the Teatro Olimpia, directed by Maricusa Ormes and performed by students from the Academia de Arte Dramático Marujuca de Farbes. In February 1951, one could read in La Nación the report of a glove puppet show (teatro guiñol) performed in Santo Domingo, which took place in the courtyard of the Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes (National School of Fine Arts) with the presentation of El Hada Encantada (The Enchanted Fairy). It was directed by Jesús Lizan, with puppets made by the students of the school.
Between the years 1960 and 1980, political and social instability paralyzed artistic activity in the country and it was not until the late 1970s would there be a resurgence of puppetry, thanks to the theatre company Gayumba, established in 1976 by Manuel Chapuseaux.
From 1980 onwards, an innovative movement of theatre and puppetry emerged in the country. The following notable groups stood out. The aforementioned Teatro Gayumba, directed by Manuel Chapuseaux, was followed by, in 1980, Teatro Chispa, directed by Angel Mejía, as well as Cúcara Mácara (Teatro de Títeres), directed by Basilio Novoa. The movement continued throughout the 1980s with the following groups: the theatre for children Teatro Papalote (Teatro Infantil, 1984), directed by Victor Checo and Aidita Selman; the puppetry workshop Pisá Colá (Taller de Teatro de Títeres, 1984), directed by Alexis Santana; Carcajada (1989), directed by Pedro Jímenez Valenzuela. In the 1990s, other companies were formed: the children’s entertainment company Ti Ti Ti (Producciones Infantiles, 1990), directed by Jorge Pineda; Teatro del Sol (1990), directed by Elvira Taveras; Teatro Sonrisitas (1991), directed by Dulce Elvira de los Santos; the puppet company Teatro Caquito (1991); Teatro Capuchín (1992), directed by Jochi Brito; and Tipití (Teatro de Títeres), founded and directed by Xiomara Rodrigo.