An interview with playwright Carmen Rivera
By Caridad Svich
Caridad Svich: LA GRINGA celebrates its 20th anniversary of performances at Repertorio Espanol this year — an amazing feat! Could you talk about the play’s initial journey? How it landed at Repertorio in the first place? What it has been like for you to see it live with different audiences over the years?
Carmen Rivera: LA GRINGA began as a one- act play entitled THE UNIVERSE, which was produced by The Shaman Repertory Theater in 1990. Shaman was a small theater company started by my husband playwright / Director Cándido Tirado and director Gloria Zelaya. THE UNIVERSE is based on a true story about my attempts to get a job in Puerto Rico, where, at the job interview, the person interviewing me told me that I wasn’t a Puerto Rican National, therefore he wasn’t going to hire me.
It’s a two hander, with Maria, the protagonist of LA GRINGA and her Uncle Manolo being the spiritual guide-mentor character. After that experience, my uncle told me, that who ever I feel am and my sense of self, start with what resides in my heart…That has remained with me to this very day.
After THE UNIVERSE was produced, Cándido encouraged me to develop it as a full-length play…and therein began the journey. It took about two years to write a very rough draft. I was in graduate school at the time — I worked on the play in several classes and then after I graduated in 1993, I continued working on the play in various writing groups.
In 1995, Pedro Monje of Ollantay was producing a reading series at Repertorio Español, in which he included my play. Fortunately both Rene Buch and Robert Federico really connected with the play and they picked it up right there. I still had a lot of work to do on the second act, which I continued doing throughout 1994 and 1995.
I write in English, so after Repertorio picked up the play, it had to be translated into Spanish, since Repertorio is a Spanish language theatre.
But there was a rather major hurdle, the main character Maria, did not speak Spanish. In the original version, Maria couldn’t speak Spanish and most of the family spoke in English to her. I had one character that didn’t speak English, so when Maria spoke to him, she spoke to him in English and he responded in Spanish. This was actually how I communicated with my grandmothers — we had whole conversations in both languages. Rene, who also directed the play, and I had a discussion about what to do with the language. We decided that at the beginning of the play, Maria would speak Spanish, somewhat incorrectly, then he told me, we couldn’t sustain that for an entire play, so her Spanish improves to a basic, decent elementary level by Scene 3. We also translated the play together, so I had a real good lesson on the power of word, expression and language throughout the entire rehearsal process. On February 8, 1996, LA GRINGA premiered at Repertorio Español.
Seeing the play live over the course of all these years has been truly a blessing. I have been really lucky, LA GRINGA has toured toward all over the United States and it has been produced in theatre festivals in Bogotá, Colombia, La Paz, Bolivia and in Puerto Rico. There have also been productions in English, in Buffalo, New York, Los Angeles, California and most recently in St. Croix, Virgin Islands. The experience changes with each audience, but the basic idea that we all search for identity remains the same. For example in St. Croix, there’s a whole community of Puerto Ricans — Puerto Crucians — and they completely connected with the idea of being Puerto Ricans and St. Crucians and then not. At the theater festival in Bogotá, a woman came up to me after one of the performances and told me that she felt bad that she told her cousins, who live in Jackson Heights, Queens, that they’re not real Colombians, that they’re gringos. Everywhere the play goes, people completely connect to the idea of identity and how challenging it is in a society that has such strict definitions of identity.
CS: Can you address some of issues that have changed meaning in the play since its first performance? After all, an audience in 1995 is not the same as one in 2015. Now 2016! And you’re not the same as an artist either! What is it like to re-visit a younger version of yourself as a playwright?
CR: With regards to the perception of the audience and has that changed since 1996, I can’t be 100% certain about this, but I think the audiences as well as society, still struggle with identity. Given the anti-immigration/anti-Latino sentiments currently permeating the media, people have had to defend their identity even stronger than they’ve had to do it in the past. But I think this idea of needing to connect to your roots has also permeated American society; look at the TV shows about people researching their ancestors and taking DNA tests. When I’ve done talk-backs for LA GRINGA, so many people want to tell me where they’re from, and not just Latinos.
Have I changed since 1996? Absolutely, although I never doubted my Puerto Rican-ness — I always felt connected to my Taino (Indigenous) and Afro-Boricua roots. Last summer my husband and I went to Spain. We visited Madrid, Granada, Cordova and Sevilla …I completely connected with the Andalusian culture — the Arab, the Jewish and the Gitano (Romani/Gypsy). There was a DNA thing happening to me that I couldn’t, nor can’t really explain, but it felt like home. I thought I had it all figured out, but I was stunned to realize that my roots go further back, before New York and Puerto Rico. I suspect, if I were to write LA GRINGA now there might be another added dimension to my identity, but I’ll never know.
Has much has changed since the first performance? Not much…except for the technology of the times. I believe that they’ve added cell phones to the production. When Maria first arrives in Puerto Rico she takes lots of pictures and I believe she’s now doing that on her cell phone.
What’s it like to revisit a version of myself as a playwright?? Hmm …not sure…Since LA GRINGA has been in repertory on a continuous basis for so long, I feel that both the play and myself have grown up together. I also keep rewriting the play — when I had a production in Puerto Rico, I made small changes, then, when I had it published by Samuel French I did some more rewriting. I am currently adapting it into a film and the story continues to evolve. I guess I do revisit my younger self, since I’m still open to rewriting. And based on how Repertorio operates, there have been many actresses that have played La Gringa throughout the years — a new actress was recently cast to play Maria, Darlenis Durán. Every time there’s a new actress, I actually get to hear the words with a different voice…and it’s through all these different interpretations, that I am able to remain connected to the Carmen that was once 22 years old.
(Actress Carissa Jocett Toro playing Maria. Photo Credit: Michael Palma)
CS: Why do you think LA GRINGA still connects with audiences? And how do you see it in relationship to your overall body of work?
CR: I’m not sure why LA GRINGA still connects with audiences but I’m very grateful that it does. Robert Federic0, the producer of Repertorio Español, likes to say that whenever he puts LA GRINGA back on the schedule, it sells out immediately. He says no matter where he throws it, it sticks.
I think LA GRINGA’s success is connected to the need for people to belong to some place. We live in a society that has very strict and narrow definitions of race, class and identity….but identity is a fluid, elastic and personal experience…it’s not an absolute and that is shown in the story. I was very conscious of that when I was writing the play. I wanted to capture the idea that identity is not a fixed construct, it is something that emerges from one’s heart and from one’s spirit. It comes from the inside-out not from the outside-in. At the end of the play Maria realizes that this Puerto Rican identity she’s been searching for in books, in flags, in places — is really a search for her sense of self, which has been living in her heart all along. What I say in LA GRINGA is, it doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from…you are, who you are. And this resonates with audiences from all backgrounds. I believe the play gives people permission to decide what their own identity is and not be defined by society’s very limiting definitions.
As for as LA GRINGA’S connection to my body of work, I think I’m always looking for these points of intersection and integrations; this is what I care about in my own life and is reflected in my work. Maria is able to integrate all of her “divided selves” by just following her heart.
CS: If you had written the play this year as an up-and-coming playwright, do you think you would have found a company to produce it? In other words, are there things about the business that have changed? Things are easier or harder for playwrights?
CR: In 1996, LA GRINGA was a part of the New Voices Series; along with the play EL CANO, that was awarded the OBIE award. That immediately opened some doors for me with agents, but it was really hard to place me or my work. There were rumblings of this Latino wave that was about to arrive (still waiting on that), but I write in English, I was born and raised in the United States, so no one knew what to do with me as an English-speaking Latina, back in 1996. Things have gotten “slightly” better. There’s more dialogue about “the Latino Voice”… and more Latino playwrights are getting produced in mainstream theatres, compared to 1996, but making theatre is tough all over.
LA GRINGA is performed in Spanish, but it is about those Latinos who were born and raised in the United States …where do we fit in? We’re kind of trapped in a world where we don’t fit in anywhere – too American to be Latino and too Latino to be American. There’s a line in the play where Maria says “if I’m Puerto Rican in the United States and I’m American in Puerto Rico that means I’m nobody from everywhere”…And her uncle (the mentor character) shows her how to look at herself without all the artificial definitions.
Perhaps, if LA GRINGA premiered in 2016, there might have been more doors open to it, but I still have challenges getting the original version of LA GRINGA, written in English, produced, even though it’s a proven commodity and is still going strong at Repertorio. In the discussions I have with producers about the film adaptation, there’s always the discussion of the demographics: what market does it fit in?? Latino??? General??? Maria and her family speak English and the family in PR speaks Spanish??? Well there is a huge English language Latino market. I grew up watching Mary Tyler Moore and All in the Family and as the market stands right now, room hasn’t been made for those Latinos that were born and raised in the United States and who primarily speak English.
CS: Repertorio Espanol works under a unique model in the US because they do maintain shows in rep. Unless you’re working in the commercial theatre and have a phenomenon like Phantom, Les Miz or Cats or Mamma Mia, it’s pretty rare for a play to stay on the boards for 20 years, especially if you’re not an ensemble that tours work like the Wooster Group or SITI Company, or a dance company, for instance. Can you address the vitality of the rep system? And how do you or do your collaborators keep the show fresh?
CR: Keeping the show fresh…I feel once again very blessed that LA GRINGA has at home at Repertorio. I think it’s an amazing paradigm. Because they have a multi-ethnic/multi-cultural company of Latino actors, every couple years I get to have a new cast, which infuses new energy into my play. Even though I’m not an actor, it would behoove any performer to be at the theatre for five or six years because in any given day you can perform in a play by Lorca in the morning; a classical play in the afternoon; then a contemporary playing the evening. I can only imagine that running Repertorio is an enormous task — between changing sets and light plots and scheduling the actors, which is one of the major challenges for the theatre. With a demanding production and touring schedule (almost 500 performances a year) it’s a fast paced environment, where everyone is kept on their toes — no stagnation here — which makes for vibrant theatre.
CS: If you were to write a sequel to LA GRINGA (are you?) what would it be?
CR: You know, several years ago, a high school that had seen my play, wrote a sequel, they called it LA GRINGA — PART 2; where the Dominican cousin, came to live with her family in Washington Heights in NYC. I went to see the production and I couldn’t stop crying. It was fantastic.
Actually, I’ve always wanted to write a prequel. I want to go back to the 1950s, when the adults in the play, Maria’s mother, Olga; her uncle Manolo and her aunt Norma were children. Although Olga came to live in the United States after the famous Marine Tiger migration, I want to show the story of the Puerto Ricans of my parents’ generation — what it was like for those that left Puerto Rico and came to live in the United States and what happened to those that stayed behind. There’s a story there, it’s been percolating for years.
CS: In the age of a monster hit like HAMILTON, do you think the landscape has changed for Boricua and Nuyorican artists? Less opportunities, more opportunities, different concerns, or goals?
CR: I think anytime there’s a piece of theatre and/or a new artist that makes waves as HAMILITON and Lin Manuel Miranda have, it’s a huge step forward…. not only for Nuyorican or Latino artists, but for all artists. HAMILTON has changed the theatrical landscape for sure. But we shouldn’t depend on one experience to all of sudden make things better. We (myself included) have a false expectation that one show or one artist is going to open the floodgates and that’s not reality. There are more producers willing to take a chance on new work now, because there is the realization that there is an audience that enjoys diverse work. But it’s still an uphill battle, it still show business, it’s still tough to get in and it’s tough for people of all backgrounds. The hardest part is finding somebody that will say “yes.”
CS: What lessons would you like to impart to next generation of writers from your success with LA GRINGA?
CR: When I speak to young writers, I always tell them — write, write, write and send your plays out and then write again and then rewrite and then dream and then write some more. And even more importantly — don’t listen to negativity; don’t be around people who are not happy for you when you are happy and who won’t give you a hug when you’re sad.
CS: If you were to go into rehearsal today with the play, would you approach it differently?
CR: I don’t think so. I still approach rehearsal with the idea that I’m exploring and excavating. I usually keep rewriting until I’m told to lock the script. Sometimes people complain about that (I’ve been lucky, it hasn’t been that many people), but the only thing I can control is my work. When a new play is being born, you have to take massive loving care of it. True collaborators will support that. The ones that don’t — well they’re not real artists.
Carmen Rivera is a New York based Playwright. Her OBIE Award winning play LA GRINGA is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, making it the longest running play in New York Latino Theatre history. For more information on her and her work, check out her website, www.carmenrivera-writer.com.
Caridad Svich is a text-builder and theatre-maker. Upcoming productions this season include Hide Sky, agua de luna (psalms for the rouge), The Breath of Stars, and a workshop of De Troya. She received a 2012 OBIE Award for Lifetime Achievement in the theatre, a 2012 Edgerton Foundation New Play Award for GUAPA, and the 2011 American Theatre Critics Association Primus Prize for her play The House of the Spirits, based on the Isabel Allende novel. A collection of her work JARMAN (all this maddening beauty) and other plays will be published Spring 2016 by Intellect UK. She has edited several books on theatre including Innovation in Five Acts (TCG), Out of Silence (Eyecorner Press), Trans-Global Readings and Theatre in Crisis? (both for Manchester University Press), Out of the Fringe (TCG), and Conducting a Life: Reflections on the Theatre of Maria Irene Fornes (Smith & Kraus). caridadsvich.com