Lowell Fiet/Special for En Rojo
December 25 to 31, 2008
Before reading this review, I recommend a visit to http://reyespoetry.com. You will immediately hear Michael Reyes reciting/performing his poems Would One Bullet End Hundreds of Years of White Supremacy followed by Who That…Now we can begin.
This review raises a basic question: why put on, write, create theater if there is no necessity to investigate a social relationship? Theater is the most traditional art but also, because of its nature, most tactile, social and conducive to community. If the public at a theatrical event doesn’t become a community of interests—diverse, conflicting, congruent, but finally shared—then the work loses not only its social purpose, but also its aesthetic purpose. Crime against Humanity, a work about the lives of the Puerto Rican political prisoners in prison, written by the poet Michael Reyes and the ex-political prisoner Luis Rosa, and put on by Batey Urbano of Paseo Boricua in Chicago, is this type of necessary work.
But can such a work be art? Let’s compare: rarely do I leave the theater before the curtain goes down, especially if it has to do with my obsession for the works of Shakespeare. But in Chicago, in the luxurious Chicago Shakespeare Theater, after paying 75 dollars for a ticket, I left the theater at intermission to return through snow and ice to my hotel to get ready for my return to Puerto Rico early the following morning.
The production of Midsummer Night’s Dream, probably Shakespeare’s most popular comedy, originated in India, with a company of Indian and Sri Lankan actors who acted in English—the best-known lines to communicate the plot— and seven other Asian languages, all intermixed. The stage became a splendid acrobatic arena, with ropes for the actors to climb & hand on, cloth suspended like hammocks, a backdrop of bamboo stalks for the actors to climb, descend, drop and disappear, live Indian music, and a rainbow of elaborate costumes.
On paper, it would all seem enormously attractive. But, like much of the theater I see, both in Puerto Rico and elsewhere, the result was an absolutely conventional work, spoken, static, with no dramatic or social interest. It became a great frenzy, ultimately boring because it never found an essential connection, a sense of community and a shared space to tell the story of free love versus forced marriage. And can such a work—luxuriously produced in a magnificent professional theater—be art?
Luckily, Chicago has many theaters—professional, semi-professional, community and cultural—and in fact I went there to visit just one: the café-theater Batey Urbano, an extension of the Juan Antonio Corretjer Puerto Rican Cultural Center— in Paseo Boricua on Division Street. This traditionally Puerto Rican community near Humboldt Park, with its huge Puerto Rican flags of steel 56 feet long, erected on Division Street to mark the entrance and exit, wears its Puerto Rican-ness as a psychological and cultural-community armor to confront the precariousness of U.S. urban life. In spite of ethno-racial and linguistic prejudices, economic inequality, gang warfare, inadequate schools, unemployment, criminality, drugs and generalized violence, the validity of the idea of “being patriotic” [hacer patria] is alive and well in this community in ways that, in many cases, almost seem to have disappeared here in Puerto Rico. The Cultural Center bears the name of Juan Antonio Corretjer, the child care center is called Consuelo Lee Tapia, the alternative charter high school, Pedro Albizu Campos, functions within the Cultural Center, and the casita Don Pedro is located right across from the Batey Urbano, on the other side of Division Street.
The Batey Urbano is also a space of learning— its spaces include an internet radio station, a room for holding class and tutoring, a computer center for after school and the café-theater— which is only a block and a half from the Cultural Center. There among bodegas, restaurants, small cafés, bakeries and other Puerto Rican-Latino businesses, the red and yellow curtain of the Batey invites a principally young public to participate in music and hip hop poetry projects, creative editing, graphic arts, photography, journalism, community activism and theater.
The director and founder is Michael Anthony Reyes Benavides, a young “chicanorican” (Mexican-American with strong roots in the Puerto Rican community and culture) poet and playwright. The tone of his spoken-word poetry is immediately evident on hearing poems like Would One Bullet… and Who that… and his available collections include Would One Bullet End Hundreds of Years of White Supremacy: The Documented Assassination of President George W. Bush, Blood Dries Black: A poem about the life and death of Filiberto Ojeda Rios, Rebirth: Murals Etched in Poetry and My Voice.
These poems establish, in addition to the rhythm and pulsing energy, an agile and penetrating control of the language that U.S. English creates like a language with keys and reflections, local to Chicago and other communities as well as globalized to open up to the Caribbean and Latin America, Iraq and the Middle East, and to the political racism behind the current African genocides. Reyes’ poetical and theatrical work shows the influence of his teacher Tato Laviera (who worked at the Batey several years) and other New York poets such as Pedro Pietri, now deceased. But it seems to me that his political vision and his domination of electronic technology and media production— also seen in artists of dub and spoken-word poetry, rap, hip-hop and reggaetón– which makes for a more cutting, subversive style, accessible outside of its immediate context.
Crime against Humanity
Reyes co-wrote the theatrical work Crime Against Humanity with ex-political prisoner Luis Rosa. The work is based on interviews with the ex-Puerto Rican political prisoners, taped in Puerto Rico and the United States, and on interviews through letters with those still in prison, Oscar López Rivera and Carlos Alberto Torres. The authors have edited and polished the narrative of each segment or character, eliminating the names and assigning them the same number (#10035), focusing to the maximum possible on daily social conditions, survival strategies, the sense of time inside and of life passing outside of prison, and the treatment they receive at the hands of the guards and the prison administration. Everything is graphic, detailed, precise and personal: the body searches; inspections and resulting chaos in the cell and one’s personal property; time in solitary confinement; transfers from one prison to another, absence of contact with ones children while they grow; loss from distance from family and friends; different treatment for being “political;” being released and leaving behind other compañeros.
It also includes the small joys, real and imagined, of cooking, communicating with compañeros, writing and artistic creation, being able to help other prisoners, resisting and surviving. Although one can identify who is talking— that one is Dilcia [sic], that one is Elizam, that one Luis, that one Lucy, that one Ricardo—, the major point seems to be to create a collectivity of voices and experiences for a public that doesn’t necessarily know the prisoners. Each actor plays two or three characters, and the cast also plays the roles of the guards. (We were very fortunate to attend the play presented on November 25 and share with ex-prisoner Ricardo Jiménez.)
There is always caution with “political” works which, sometimes, depend on an inflated rhetoric to “preach to the choir” instead of representing real conditions and situations in complex contexts. In this case, the narratives and unipersonal acting don’t show “pamphleting” tendencies— a word frequently poorly used to limit the theatrical thematic instead of referring to the limited way of presentation— but rather the interiority of the prison experience as the personal stories of a political and anti-colonial national resistance.
With great precision and an admirable dramatic and emotional balance, the structure of the play juxtaposes abuses and acts of support, pain and happiness, great loss of time and artistic and human creativity, long, slow, calm, almost wordless narratives, and others short and violent that drip with screams, the desire to be free and the sadness of knowing that not everyone will be released. It thus communicates the specificities and human complexities of individual and collective survival in a way that never sounds like lines taken from Wikipedia.org.
The scenery is a simple cell. Each character— sometimes with guards— enters into this space to tell part of his/her life of being imprisoned over the years. Abuse, body searches— there is a strip search as a natural part of this dehumanizing process, and “inspections” and the prisoner’s careful re-establishing of order in this limited space— are all presented. The guards are depersonalized through the use of masks.
About thirty spectators attended the special, unannounced showing, and the play makes us a community of shared interests, permits a social relationship of exchange and conversation and “being patriotic” in involving ourselves in specific Puerto Rican processes and places, and, at the same time general and global, from the time Nelson Mandela was in prison, to the Puerto Rican and Cuban prisoners still in prison today, to Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo and the Congo.
The life of the work depends on the commitment, talent and discipline of the actors. Here the luxury is the richness of this group of youth– at 28 years old, writer and director Reyes is the oldest. Samuel Vega, Melissa Cintrón, José I. Pérez, Guadalis del Carmen and Michael Reyes offer mature, controlled, thoughtful and always convincing acting. That is because, in part, because they don’t try to represent or specifically imitate any particular prisoner, but rather to transmit their experience in the most authentic way possible. They are university students, poets, performers and community activists who, in their professional search, are committed to not leave behind their Puerto Rican identity. Their power to articulate thoughts and feelings on stage is also transferred to the social exchange with the public after the function. They act with the necessity to make ties and create communities of shared interests—the necessity to make theater, as it is said, with a purpose.
With a group so united it is difficult to distinguish any particular actor. However, the acting of Samuel Vega stands out on stage without taking away from the other members of the cast. Vega dominates English as well as Spanish, and, more important, demonstrates a corporal discipline that manages to communicate through a scenic language of presence, movement and expression that doesn’t need words as such.
Crime Against Humanity opened at Batey Urbano in Chicago in March of this year. It opened at Hostos Community College in New York on December 12, and from there went on tour throughout Latino communities in the United States. They performed at Taller Cé in Río Piedras last summer, and Reyes and his cast want to be able to present the work in Spanish in Puerto Rico the summer of 2009. Thanks to all of them for sharing their work and commitment. Special thanks to José Rivera for his photography and emails.
(In the next weeks I will publish the text of my interview with poet and director Michael Reyes.)
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