Jose Rivera is out of the kitchen sink and into magical realism.
That's the term the playwright uses to describe "The Promise," a modern-day tale of love, death--and love beyond it. Developed at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa last summer as part of the company's second annual Hispanic Playwrights Project, it opened Friday at the Los Angeles Theatre Center.
An alternately serious and bubbly 32, Rivera became hooked on magical realism reading the works of South American writers, principally those of Gabriel Garcia Marquez ("One Hundred Years of Solitude"). "But there wasn't much of a precedent for it on the stage," he said. "I knew it worked in a novel; because the language is so rich, it creates pictures in your mind. I wanted to do that on the stage."
The key, he felt, was establishing consistent images and a "very real realism" on which to tie the magic. He is not talking about your average, everyday prestidigitation, but something spiritual that manifests itself in striking and surreal images.
"Early on, you have to be selective, lay the ground rules--and stick to them. Like at the end, I wanted to make it seem as if the earth were crying. I wanted the corn to bleed. So I laid the seeds from the beginning. When the father comes out in the first scene, he cuts his hand and waters the corn. At the end of Act 1, the daughter cuts her hand to water the letter she's writing. Twice we see blood going into the earth. The third time, when the corn bleeds, it completes the circle of magic."
The Puerto Rico-born, New York-based Rivera (who spent three years as a staff writer for Embassy Television) stressed that the inclusion of magic doesn't detract--or distract--from the story line. "The magic serves the lives of these people, their psychological truths," he said.
"I always use the example of Chagall. He's got a painting of a wedding where the groom is flying in the air because he's so happy. In magic realism, if you started flying around in the air, I'd just wait for you to get back, then we'd continue our conversation. That's the way life (would be). People still have lives the way we know them: jobs, school--and magic is the color; it flavors their world. Nothing stops so it can have an effect.
"I used to write 'social' plays," continued Rivera, who admits to the heavy influence of Tennessee Williams and Eugene O'Neill in his earlier "fourth-wall realism, kitchen sink" plays. "One was about a wife-beater, one about elderly people losing their homes. It was always the powerless against the powerful--and that theme has remained pretty constant. In this play, that's still there, but there are other things. 'The Promise' is about maturation, growth, about leaving superstition behind. It's also very concerned with the cultural genocide that's happening in Puerto Rico."
He shook his head. "The culture is exported from the United States. You go to a home in a little town out in the woods, turn on the TV and you've got Dan Rather. Kids wear 'A-Team' T-shirts. They learn English at school, and the indigenous folklore is not taught. Textbooks talk about Paul Bunyan and American history.
"This play is about a father-daughter relationship--but to me, the important thing is that a very valuable and very beautiful culture is slowly being overcome by an alien culture. And that's a great pity."
It was only as an adult that Rivera himself became acquainted with his motherland ("exotic, irrational, wild, unpredictable, almost childlike") and began to investigate that cultural identity.
"When people meet me, most of them don't know I'm Hispanic till they hear my name," he said with a shrug. "I mean, I experienced prejudice as a kid. I was one of the few Puerto Ricans in my school. Kids picked on me, beat me up. It was like, 'Let's get the spik.' But they picked on someone else because they had freckles, or because they had goofy teeth. So I never thought it was about race. It wasn't till I got out of college (Ohio's Denison University) and started writing plays with Hispanic characters that people said, 'Well, you're quite a Hispanic playwright.' And I thought, 'Whoa, where did that come from?' "
Rivera has since found his own niche within that imposed identity; he even dubs "The House of Ramon Iglesias" (which played Off Broadway in 1983 and was later adapted for PBS' American Playhouse) "my first Hispanic play." Yet he chafes at the notion that his plays are "representative" of Latino work: "I have a problem being the spokesman for a group. That seems really grandiose. But I wouldn't mind being a role model for young Hispanic writers. When I was growing up, I didn't think there was a Hispanic play, till I came across (Miguel Pinero's) 'Short Eyes'--and I said, 'Ah-ha. It is possible to do this.' "