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Summer 2001

Teatro Latino's Bronx Debut at Lehman College

 


ehman College has one of the largest Hispanic and Latino student populations on the East Coast, and our surrounding community is rich in this culture as well. At the Lovinger Theatre, one of our goals this season was to present a series of performances in which these important members of our student body and our Bronx neighbors could see themselves in the culture-and the culture in themselves. Encouraged by Dean of Humanities Marlene Gottlieb, we wanted to see their struggles and strengths mirrored onstage and to meet outstanding Hispanic and Latino writers and performers who had triumphed in the theater.

.Actor Ruben Santiago-Hudson during his April 23 reading from Lackawanna Blues. Recently a drama critic for the Village Voice called him "the American actor I'd most like to see take on the Hamlet challenge."

On April 16, a spring day that made the Lehman College campus a garden of green trees and pink azaleas, that goal was realized with the opening of the Lovinger Theatre's Teatro Latino Festival. Standing on stage were Rosie Perez and Jon Diaz, two stars of stage and screen, fresh from rave reviews of the new play they were premiering at the Joseph Papp Public Theater in Manhattan-Puerto Rican playwright Josť Rivera's References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot. Their reading,which captured both the tension and tenderness of their starring roles, gave the audience an intimate introduction to this major new work, which explores the pressures being exerted by American society on a contemporary Hispanic marriage. Afterwards, in a question-and-answer session, the audience-full of Rosie Perez fans-asked about the beginnings of her career, her experiences as a Latina actress, any discrimination she may have suffered, her feelings playing opposite stars like Nicholas Cage and Jeff Bridges, and her thoughts on the recent "Latin Explosion." Perez told of never intending to be an actress. Out clubbing one night in Los Angeles, Spike Lee spotted her. He gave her his card and said, "Call me and your life will never be the same." She did and it wasn't:

Actress Rosie Perez, nominee for an Academy Award for her role in Fearless(1993), is seen with some of her admirers during her apperance at the kickoff of Teatro Latino on April 16 at the Lovinger Theatre.

Perez was featured in Lee's debut film Do the Right Thing, and her career took off. She also recalled casting issues regarding her Latina heritage. Agents, directors and producers would ask-"Can you dye your hair blond?" "Can you change your accent?"-can you "read" more American? She refused, convinced that her Puerto Rican identity was part of her strength as an artist. Ruben Santiago-Hudson, who earned his Tony in August Wilson's Pulitzer Prize-winning play Seven Guitars, felt the same way. His contribution to the Teatro Latino Festival was a reading from his new one-man play, Lackawanna Blues, then in previews at the Public Theater. Although he works in "traditional" roles (such as lawyers on TV's Law and Order and in Devil's Advocate with Al Pacino), his heart is in his creative experience as an actor of mixed Latino and African American heritage. Santiago-Hudson spoke of his struggles to be taken seriously as an actor and to fight for roles that portrayed men of color in a positive light.

Lackawanna Blues, which Santiago-Hudson wrote and performed, portrays more than 20 characters from every walk of life who pass through a boarding house. The play is autobiographical-Santiago-Hudson, a young homeless boy, was adopted by his beloved "Nanny," who ran a boarding house-and unfolds old men's memories, young boys' hopes, and lovers' disappointments through Nanny's eyes. This actor's tour de force testifies to the human spirit's desire not only to survive but also to live a life full of joy.

The last event in the Teatro Latino Festival, Lidia Ramirez's I Love America, was a revelation for the 500 Lehman and College Now students who attended its premiere at the Lovinger. Written and performed by this talented Dominican actress, the play is based on her interviews with Dominican refugees who risked their lives in small boats (yolas) to get to Puerto Rico and who eventually arrived in New York in search of the American Dream. Having seen their personal experiences and those of their families portrayed on stage, the students laughed and cheered and answered Lidia's performance with their own. The script was moving, funny, and real. The audience knew this world, they knew this struggle. It had been private. Now it was public. After the Lovinger world premiere, the play moved Off-Broadway to the American Place Theater on West 46th Street.

The magic of theater lies in making the invisible visible (Shakespeare captured this with his magical stage direction in The Tempest : "Enter. . .Ariel, invisible"). Theater brings what has been kept secret into the open for all to share, both in sadness and joy. This was felt by everyone in the Lovinger Theatre when the stage faded to black and the lights came up on opening night. The energy and the light continued to build throughout the series.

Teatro Latino was a first experience for us. We laughed a lot and learned a lot. We made friends we didn't realize we had. Many members of the audience attended every event. CUNY has always been an important source and inspiration of new cultural trends in New York City, and we at the Lovinger Theatre hope to continue this tradition in future seasons of Teatro Latino.