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On Stage: the Latin surrealism of Jose Rivera



Almost anything can happen in the world of Jose Rivera's plays. Maidens have prophetic dreams; flowers bloom as long-separated lovers kiss; a man "waters" his garden with his own blood; a handsome young poet is murdered by the magic dance of a chicken.

In two plays receiving their Chicago premieres this fall, the 34-year-old Rivera uses these and other bizarre, symbol-laden events and images to express the Latin American culture of myth and magic, as well as its tense and tenuous existence in rational, commercialized contemporary U.S. society. This matter-of-fact blending of natural and supernatural, material and spiritual, is often called "magic realism," particularly in reference to the novels of Latin American writers such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But the term is not often applied to works written for the theater.

Rivera knows that and has set out to explore how magic realism and Latin surrealism can work on a stage. If his plays The Promise and Each Day Dies With Sleep reflect the stylistic influence of Marquez, that's no accident. Rivera, born in Puerto Rico and raised on Long Island, is an admirer and a former student of the great novelist.

"I was invited by the Sundance Institute to take part in a workshop with Marquez," says Rivera. "Robert Redford [the institute's founder] had been lobbying to get Marquez into the country." Marquez, most famous for his novel 100 Years of Solitude, is an unabashed supporter of Cuban leader Fidel Castro and his communist policies. "Marquez runs an institute for film in Cuba where young filmmakers can meet professionals from around the world," says Rivera. "Redford had gone there, and he and Marquez met and liked each other." After considerable effort, Redford engineered Marquez's entry into the U.S. on a temporary visa. Then his institute invited a half dozen writers of Latin descent to study with Marquez in a ten-day intensive workshop. "We'd spend four hours a day with him," Rivera remembers. "They'd lock the doors--there was considerable attention to security because of his reputation--and then he would sit with us from nine in the morning to one in the afternoon and just talk."

Part of the purpose of the workshops, Rivera says, was for the American writers to help Marquez develop a dramatic anthology series for Mexican television. Appropriately, Rivera's professional credits include the TV series a.k.a. Pablo, a situation comedy developed by All in the Family producer Norman Lear. "It was the first all-Hispanic comedy series on TV," says Rivera. "It starred Hector Elizondo and Paul Rodriguez. Unfortunately, it only lasted six episodes. But I had signed a three-year contract with Lear, so I stayed around and developed shows for him."

Lear had hired Rivera on the strength of his first major stage effort, The House of Ramon Iglesia. The play was produced in 1983 in New York, where Rivera was living at the time, and later was shown on the public-TV series "American Playhouse" with a cast headed by Jaime Sanchez and Annie Golden. Because of the play, Rivera says, "I was able to quit my day job, and I got married. Heather [Dundas] and I had been going together for a long time, but neither of us had our lives in order. Then this happened. The play opened in March, I got married in May, and by August I was in Los Angeles working for Norman."

But by 1986 Rivera found himself homesick for New York, and the TV staff-writer gig was leaving him less than satisfied. "It was ironic," he says. "When Ramon Iglesia opened, I was finally on the right track as a playwright after years of struggling. Then suddenly, with Norman, I was off it again. The day after my contract expired, Heather and I moved back to New York. The next day, I started writing The Promise."

Aside from marking his renewed commitment to the stage, The Promise was a stylistic turning point for Rivera. His earlier plays had been naturalistic dramas. In The Promise, inspired by the classic Jewish drama The Dybbuk, he deliberately drew on the Latin American tradition of literary fantasy. "I was beginning to read a lot of Marquez, [Jorge Luis] Borges, [Pablo] Neruda," he says. "I thought their work was beautiful, and uniquely Latin. And familiar! The stories from 100 Years of Solitude sounded like the stories I'd heard growing up, from my grandparents and my godparents. It seemed like the right vocabulary for me.

"I looked for the stage equivalents, and found a few things: some wonderful works from medieval Spain, by Lope de Vega and Pedro Calderon de la Barca. And, from the 20th century, Fernando Arrabal, though he's more specifically political than I am. Other precedents would be Shakespeare--I consider him a magic realist in works like A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Tempest--and Sam Shepard, whose roots are so deep in southwestern American Indian and Chicano culture. But there didn't seem to be much of this in current theater."

Rivera's conscious decision to explore Latin surrealism was, he says, "a big break" from the way he'd been trained. At Denison University in Ohio, where he took his BFA in writing, "all my literature classes were based on Western, North American, European literature and culture. Like, if you learn mythology, you learn Homer, not the gods of the Aztecs. Yet they're just as valid, and as beautiful."

A personal quest was involved here too--one that strongly informs The Promise (premiered in Los Angeles in 1988) and Each Day Dies With Sleep (coproduced earlier this year by the Berkeley Repertory Theatre and New York's Circle Repertory), the first major plays he wrote after leaving the Lear studio. In both works heroes and heroines seek to define their personal identities while grappling with the influences of their ancestors on one hand and of contemporary American pop culture on the other. In The Promise, a romantic drama of otherworldly possession, a maiden conducts mystical candle rituals to the strains of Donna Summer records; her father waxes nostalgic about the old life in Puerto Rico but complains that he can't read Spanish anymore; and her drug-using brother ogles boots in the window of the Ponderosa House of Western Apparel and dreams of becoming "the world's first Puerto Rican cowboy." In Each Day Dies With Sleep, a surreal satire on the sexual domination of women, the heroine and her lover leave the east coast for California--a journey Rivera says is deliberately analogous to the one he and his wife took in the mid-1980s. The heroine's ambition is to open a high-class auto garage catering to the stars; her lover's dream is to become a TV and magazine model. But reality intrudes, and she must return home to take care of her slothful father and 20 brothers and sisters.

Rivera identifies rootlessness as a common theme in his work. "I think for many Puerto Ricans there is that sense," he says. "Puerto Rico is neither a state nor a country. We're kind of without an identity." The notion of growing up divorced from one's heritage, he says, directly reflects his own experience: his family moved to Long Island from Puerto Rico when he was four years old. "There was a huge migration in the 50s. When we moved to Long Island, it was really rural and isolated. Our relatives moved to the Bronx and Newark, but my dad just preferred the island. There he could garden--it was like a little farm, with animals and crops, just like in The Promise. He was trying to re-create life in Puerto Rico."

The Promise opens this week at Lifeline Theatre in Rogers Park; next month the Latino Chicago Theater Company in Wicker Park will mount Each Day Dies With Sleep. Meanwhile, Rivera--who now lives in Los Angeles, where he says there are more writing opportunities and his young daughter is safer than in New York--is at work on a new play, Marisol. In it, a Puerto Rican woman in the Bronx is protected by a guardian angel--a black woman who wears dreadlocks and carries an Uzi. Magic? Yes. But realistic too. "Think of a situation where you have people sitting outside a restaurant starving to death and begging for food, while inside other people are dining on a delicious meal," says Rivera. "It happens all the time. That juxtaposition is no crazier than an angel with an Uzi."

The Promise runs through November 10 at Lifeline Theatre, 6912 N. Glenwood; for information call 761- 4477. Latino Chicago's production of Each Day Dies With Sleep opens November 15 at the Firehouse, 1625 N. Damen, and runs through December 23; for information call 486-5120.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J. Alexander Newberry.

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