Sunday, June 28, 2015

¡Ay, Jesús! Oh, Jesus!


the making of THE RED ROSE - 2002-2005

¡Ay, Jesús! Oh, Jesus!
Part 2 of 3 

Take a moment to read my previous blog so you can quickly understand how we got here! Nearly 20 years had passed since I was introduced to the lives, times and literary works of Jesús Colón. 

By 2002, Pregones Theater had settled in our new home on Walton Avenue.The main building that would become the main theater three years later was nowhere near inhabitable. But we had the house next to it. A three-story white house that, for lack of a better name, we called La Casa Blanca/The White House. It felt good to have our own White House! 

We moved quickly to transform its living room and kitchen into a performing studio with 30 seats, a small stage, a tiny bar area that doubled as tiny booth and tiny box office. The tiny console lit up all of three lighting instruments. We covered the windows with set pieces from one of our productions, painted the walls in bright colors and voilà! We had a new performing space! Time to program for our new stage at the Casa Blanca. 

Jesús Colón (1901–1974) 
Without reason to wait any longer, I set out to share with Jorge and Desmar copies of stories, poems and articles published by and about Jesús Colón. It was time to call my compadre Roberto and share the good news: the seed planted 20 years earlier was finally going to bear fruit. I reached his wife, my comadre Nelly Rivera Marrero first. I could feel her grin over the phone when she said ' please tell me you are including Little Things Are Big!'. Yes! I almost screamed. We were both elated. This was the story that moved me the most, the one I could not do without. And the one she had insisted I read first two decades earlier.  

But, the more I searched the more I found and the more I found the immensity of the  very complicated times of the 1930's-1960's began to overwhelm me. I kept reminding myself that the big goal was to create a full ensemble musical based on adaptations of Jesús Colón's works. The research had begun, not only by reading his books but by searching details about his life at the Center for Puerto Rican Studies. I still did not have the story.

Jorge B. Merced, Actor

This is when working collectively comes in handy. It soon became clear that the best way to discover the story was by structuring the creation of the musical of my dreams in production phases. We decided to focus our attention on a sample collection of Jesús Colón's stories and poems.  Slowly, elements of his style, humor, politics and enigma began to emerge. We 'met' the man through his writings. The big dream of a large musical play took a detour. Instead, it would become a two-man show...for now:  JORGE MERCED, Actor;and DESMAR GUEVARA, Composer/Musician would be on stage, charged with delivering a brand new Pregones' piece through performance and music.
Desmar Guevara, Composer

ALVAN COLON-LESPIER would direct while I worked on the adaptations of the material. I couldn't dream of a better team. REGINA GARCIA worked her magic by creating a simple runway that connected the stage with the other end of the Casa Blanca, with the audience seating on each side of the platform. 
Alvan Colón Lespier, Director
I retreated to create the script--in Puerto Rico. In addition to the stories, I had obtained recordings of the actual 1959 HUAC hearing in which JC was called to testify.  There was something about that period that I sensed was important, although how much would not be truly discovered until two years later.

One very dry day - creatively speaking - I sighed and blurted: "¡Ay, Jesús!" Bingo! I had landed on the title for this first round:  ¡Ay, Jesús! Oh, Jesus!

Regina Garcia, Designer
Jorge and Desmar worked fiercely to perform the collection: Stowaway, I Heard a Man Crying, Little Things Are Big and many others. Alvan led with his usual steady hand. I relished in that first banquet that would lead us all to The Red Rose. Our tribute to one of the most influential Puerto Rican immigrants in NYC in the first part of the 20th Century, was now a reality.

Next week: World Premiere (2005)
    THE RED ROSE     
                                          Part 3 of 3                                      

Photos: Erika Rojas, Marisol Diaz

Monday, May 18, 2015

The making of THE RED ROSE

THE RED ROSE - the early years
Segment 1 of 3

It all began around 1982, with a challenge by a friend who would become my compadre two years later. 

One evening, at a gathering with his family, he propped a book on the dinner table and said: "here is a play you have to make".  Frankly, if I was to be paid a dollar for each time someone tells me that, my retirement fund would look much better. Alvan- my then-boy friend-now-husband and colleague- and I looked at each other. 

I think I said something like: "really?" He pressed on. "Have you ever read Jesús Colón's stories? " I couldn't say I had, as it would have been obvious I was bluffing. I didn't even know who Jesús Colón was. And the book didn't look like a play. The title of the book was "The Way We Were and Other Writings". It was a small book (whew!). And then the elevator speech: "this is a collection of stories written by a Puerto Rican immigrant during the 1920s" It is the first account of the Puerto Rican migration written in English by one of us". Blink blink. That worked. He gave me the book to take home. And as I rode the #1 uptown train, I began to read. 

It is hard at times when friends approach me with an idea for a play. If I don't plan to do anything with it, I try to let them know as soon as possible. I also warn  them that if I like the idea, it might take years before they will see it realized, if at all. But that is now. This was 1983, and my ideas were young, and in many ways, new - at least for me. My fascination with turning non dramatic texts into plays and deconstructing existing plays was there. But my own process was not quite there yet. Pregones Theater was about five years old, and we were everywhere. 

I told my future compadre that I had loved the stories, which was true. And then...I put the book aside. It isn't that I didn't think the book had dramatic potential. But other projects were lined up, lots of traveling, the building of our first theater at St. Ann's Church, and on and on.

Before I knew it, it was almost Year 2000. A new century before us. Over the years, and without any deadline in mind, I had become familiar with Jesús Colón. I had bought a second book of his: "A Puerto Rican In New York and Other Sketches". To my surprise, the photos on the front and back covers of the edition were of a street event in front of what was then Teatro 4 on 104th Street in East Harlem. We had partnered with Teatro 4 quite a bit in the early 80s, and had performed at that street event. Blink blink. I wondered... maybe it would make sense to...I quietly began to read both books again with fresh eyes. Alvan did the same. 

2000 - New century, new space, new everything!
In 2000 Pregones Theater moved to what would be our permanent home, even if that home would take 5 years to become a reality. A set of buildings on Walton Avenue in The Bronx provided the perfect setting for us. The largest building would be transformed into a theater and since we were far from ready for it, we turned a white house adjacent to it into a performance studio that sat all of 30 people in it! The house was white, so we baptized it La Casa Blanca. And we began to program, to create chamber theater pieces that would play well in its tiny stage.
Alvan Colón Lespier
I can't remember the moment when I decided to work with Jesús Colón's stories. But I do remember the first story I was committed to: "Little Things Are Big". Alvan and I both loved the idea. He wanted to be involved. Next thing I knew, I was photocopying the story and sharing it with creative partners Jorge Merced and Desmar Guevara. I was ready. It was time to make that phone call to the Center for Puerto Rican Studies. Because there was a lot I did not know yet. Gracias compadre Roberto Marrero. Ay, Jesús!

Little Things Are Big by Jesús Colón; an excerpt:
What would I do if she let out a scream as I offered my help?It was a long minute. I passed on by her as if I saw nothing. As if I was insensitive to her need. Like a rude animal, I just moved on, half running by the long subway platform, leaving the children and the valise and her with the baby in her arm. I took the steps of the long concrete stairs in twos until I reached the street above and the cold air slapped my warm face. This is what racism...and prejudice...can do to people...and to a nation!

2003-2005 - Next Monday! Next Blog!

Jorge Merced in "Ay Jesús! Oh Jesus!"

Monday, March 5, 2012

FLY BABIES / PIOJOS - The Last Stretch!


In "Los Angeles Se Han Fatigado / Breathless Angels" 2001
Photo: Hector L. Delgado
Segment 6 of 6

The question came from an audience member at the end of the workshop production in August:

"Will these characters connect

with each other at some point?"

I wanted to scream nooooo!!!!!
But I would have lost the argument.

...but first I needed to take care of one detail I was determined to bring into the play.

Tolkien and I

In my early search I had learned that writer JRR Tolkien had lice  and almost lost his life because of it. Yes, that one of Lord Of The Rings and other brilliant works. I won't get into the details here. And no, lice are not life threatening today in most parts of the world. I was haunted by Tolkien and his lice problems. The challenge was similar to the one I had with the character of Louis XIV (segment 3 of blog). I didn't think it was necessary to have Tolkien as a stand alone character. I am not an expert on Tolkien, but I knew enough about his Silmarillion to know that there was some connection between his Luthien and our Liberty.

Click:  I introduced Tolkien by placing Liberty in a park, reading a passage from Silmarillion, unaware that Dr. Reyes is listening. As the play evolves so does the friendship between Reyes and Liberty, based on their common interest in Tolkien. 

LIBERTY:   (reading) "Húrin cried 'Aurë entuluva! The day shall come again!' Seventy times he uttered that cry; but they took him at last alive..."                                         
DR. REYES:  "But the dawn is brief and the day full often belies its promise."
LIBERTY:   (startled) Aurë entuluva? 
Omar Pėrez (Dr. Reyes) and
Rosal Colón (Liberty)
DR. REYES: The cry of a man with hope that, in the face of overwhelming evil, good will overcome in the end. (pointing at the book) ‘Silmarillion’.  
LIBERTY: You know Tolkien’s work? 
DR. REYES:  More than that. I know him.    
LIBERTY:  (pause) You look like a professor.              
DR. REYES:  A scientist. (pause) Are you a student?
LIBERTY: Sort of. (pause) I…I want to change the world.
DR. REYES: (guard enters, parades around them) Me too.

The Characters:

The Ensemble
As is common in ensembles, all actors played more than one character. In addition to their core character, actors played Clean Police, parents at a private school and Louis XIV's court.  This was accomplished by being extremely well organized back stage. Quick costume changes, the circulation of props and the entering/exiting from opposite sides of the stage needed more than a stage hand.

Enter Magic Hands! To avoid excessive traffic and pretensions, I determined that our intern and stage hand Charmaine Santiago, also an actress, would play Magic Hands. Using a pair of flashy golden gloves, the 'hands' floated in and out of the stage receiving and delivering props and/or costume pieces to/from the actors. The audience only sees the hands on stage, never the stage hand's body. 

In summary, the characters and actors - in the order introduced - are:

The Clean Police ....................................   Ensemble
Demetrio (actor,Louis XIV,parent)...........   Jesús Martínez
Georgette (opera singer).........................   Shadia Fairuz
Chic (high end lice consultant) ...............   Elise Hernández
Dr. Reyes (entomologist).........................   Omar Pėrez  
Liberty (activist, parent)...........................   Rosal Colón


The play opens with the recorded announcement that frames the story: "Borders are closed! Clubs have detectors! Schools are on guard! Malls are off limits! Those suspected of carrying lice, nits, and other types of parasites will not be allowed to travel, to dance, to work, to shop or to gather in public at risk of being arrested by the Clean Police at once! This is the Brown Alert!"  

To prevent a worldwide lice catastrophe, world superpowers agree to declare a common brown alert. With the actors playing multiple roles, the Clean Police delivers the message. 

An upscale elementary private school in the East Side of Manhattan has an outbreak of lice. Chic, a high end lice consultant has been called  in to help the parents deal with the problem. She invites Dr. Reyes, a prominent entomologist, to address the parents. Meanwhile Georgette, an opera singer and one of the mothers in the school is doing everything she can to keep the school lice outbreak a secret, fearing social backlash.

In another part of town, Demetrio an actor of dubious talent, receives the great news that he is being cast as Louis XIV. He is delirious. Life is beyond good. A King! In a nearby park, a young activist by the name of Liberty, rallies people to protest against the brown alert. The individual stories and conflicts escalate to the moment in which they coincide in the park and are suddenly surrounded by the Clean Police. But Dr. Reyes and Liberty assert themselves and soon enough, they all realize that despite their social differences, they are facing a similar situation. The moment leads to the final song "Who Is On Your Side?".

Fly Babies / Piojos is a social satire in which a brown alert means much more than a mere lice outbreak. Misconceptions about who carries lice, how we deal with it socially and what does a 'brown alert' really mean is at the center of this musical play. With only the first act completed and the second act drafted but not finished, we began rehearsals on September 20, 2011 at 1pm. Fifteen years after the first thought about lice crawled into my brain.

October 21,1011 - FINALLY!

Segment 6 of 6
                Thank you
To all my sources of information. They are too many to mention here, but I particularly enjoyed (mothers against lice)

To my muses Rosal and Alejandra, and to Roxana for all those hours of nit picking. They turned out to be fun.

To Desmar for the late night emailed recordings, and for the music. To Tony, for his moves, creativity, patience and good nature.

To our friends from Sering Theater in Antwerp, Belgium for their contribution to our story.

To each actor, musician, designer and crew member in the production. Their trust in me and in the process we set in motion let us walk together towards opening night.  
To my teammates Alvan, Jorge and Arnaldo.

And to our audiences, who so openly shared their lice stories, making for great after-show conversations.


Ensemble "Mechón a Mechón"
 Photos: Erika Rojas, Video: Rosalba


It was time to connect the last! 

Monday, February 20, 2012

FLY BABIES / PIOJOS - Fact and Fiction - a matter of script


Performing in Game Over.  Photo: Erika Rojas
Segment 5 of 6

Schools in panic, summer camps on the defensive, 
turntables unrealized, a teacher turned duchess, 
an actor turned king...all of this  and more
has been covered by previous segments of my blog. 

Ultimately, it all leads to the challenge ahead of me.

FLY BABIES / PIOJOS - 2010-11 continued

Blocking a scene at Pregones' Casa Blanca
 Elise Hernández (singing), with  Shadia Fairuz and Omar Pėrez
Playing: Desmar Guevara, Anthony Carrillo
Photos: Erika Rojas, Video: Rosalba

In 2010 Pregones scheduled the premiere of Fly Babies / Piojos for the Fall of 2011. I began to feel the pressure. The 20 minute showcase we had shown in Remojo two years before had set a direction. But what to do with all the information gathered over the years, what to use, what to discard and most importantly, how to deliver it to the audience? At some point one needs to stop searching. So I stopped...for a while. I don't do conventional plays but my route was perhaps too unconventional, even for me.

2011 - Workshop Production

As the Summer of 2011 approached I saw another opportunity to advance the project. In summary, I had five key characters on track: Chic (lice consultant), Dr. Reyes (entomologist), Liberty (activist), Demetrio (actor) and Georgette (opera singer). Other characters would surface later. With some fine tuning I could present at least 40 minutes worth of monologues and songs at Pregones'  annual block party, which includes outdoors concerts and indoors presentations. It was clear by now that the monologues and songs would be performed in interaction between the characters. This interaction was addressed in Diversity, a musical scene that finally hinted at a common story in the production. 

August 7, 2011 - Workshop production of Fly Babies / Piojos
We decided to go ahead and present a workshop production title! We had always called it Piojos, the Spanish word for 'lice', but I was inclined to use an euphemism instead of the literal 'piojos'. We had been using fly babies as a working title, courtesy of our colleague Arnaldo López. Fly babies imply wings, which lice don't have, flying insects, which lice are not. In short, lice - even baby ones- are the opposite of a fly baby. Perfect!

The Ensemble gets into the action
August 7, 2011 - Workshop production
Pregones Ensemble is integrated by actors and musicians who work consistently with the company. The creative process adjusts depending on the type of project. In this case, I mostly needed them to approach the characters and the music the way Desmar and I were proposing. Their task was to infuse their own spark, question choices when necessary and contribute to the aesthetic development of the piece. I needed to see the material on its feet.

Our team was completed with Anthony Carrillo (percussion), John Benitez (bass),Tony Vargas(movement) and Jessica Moya (projections). Our budget could cover 9 days of rehearsals. Everyone was game, but a bit worried. There was a lot of material to cover. But I got everyone to relax by assuring them that we would present to the audience only the material we could cover during those 9 days. It worked.

On the day of the performance we even had one of our actresses say to the audience: "the next scene, called Diversity, is incomplete; we are not sure where we are heading with it, but thought it would be fun to share with you where we are at". The audience loved it and responded accordingly.

Fast forward: Eventually the scene would begin like this:

Shadia Fairuz (Georgette)
and Elise Hernández (Chic)
(Music. Georgette enters, followed by Chic. Georgette seems in a trance.)
GEORGETTE: (in a whisper) ...or to a secret place…where no one knows who we are…do you understand?...

CHIC: Surely you understand the cost involved…

GEORGETTE: Tomorrow. At midnight. I will have a confidentiality agreement prepared. You must show up at the airport in an unmarked van and discreet clothing. A private plane will take you to our villa. It is secluded. My daughter, her nanny...and I will there.

During the nine days of rehearsals we sharpened some of the characters and explored some potential relationships. At the end of each day I would go home to rewrite, reshape and bring back fresh dialogue or ideas.

For example, in an early version of one of the characters I had a self taught 'duchess' be an expert on lice. But the character had to have a reason to possess all this knowledge.  I knew I couldn't discard the world of lice and the branch of science that studies them. Turning the play into a speech about lice was not an option. In my previous segment I wrote about Dr. Reyes. Yes, the Duchess came back as Dr. Reyes, and because working in ensembles often means aligning text with specific actors, 'she' came back as a 'he'. Here Dr. Reyes greets a group of parents :

Omar Pėrez as Dr. Reyes - Workshop production
Good evening. I am an Entomologist. En-to-mo-lo-gist! (word scrolls across screen) Cockroaches, mosquitoes and   lice---oh, my! For an entomologist, running across these creepy crawlies is a dream come true. What am I saying! They are not creepy. They are crawling wonders! (pauses, amazed at the thought; music) I live and work in many places. Here, there, everywhere! I have studied the lives of very famous, and of very infamous historical figures. Writers, kings, gorillas! (at the sound of a siren, Dr. Reyes exits.)

Q & A - Someone finally pops the question

A standing ovation is always encouraging and that is exactly what we received. Everyone was on their feet, cheering and clapping. We had about 40 minutes of material, with strong performances, fun and provocative songs and a glimpse of an emerging common theme.

After the performance I invited the audience to a conversation about the project. Some members of the audience shared their own experiences and others asked about why I had decided to write a play about lice (this question surfaced again and again).

And then, finally the question came: "will these characters connect with each other through a story?"

I answered honestly: "I don't know". Then I asked: "Do you need a single story?" Several answers: "not really", "yes, for sure", "it is expected" etc.

But I knew the answer already: although each character had her/his own individual conflict, I needed something much stronger to bring it all together.

Oh, No! This is my idea!

A NY Times article about the booming business of high end lice consultants (not an abuela) triggered all kinds of thoughts, but mostly it felt like a threat. Because when The NY Times says it, people pay attention! I panicked at the thought that someone might see what I had seen for nearly 15 years...that a musical could be made out of it. Not that it happened. Because really, not too many people dare.

Next Segment:  The Last Stretch 
En route to the premiere

Jesús Martínez (Actor/Louis XIV), Cast and Magic Hands
singing  "El Rascador" (The Scratcher)

Photos: Erika Rojas