It all began around 1982, with a challenge by a friend who would become my compadre two years later.
One evening, at a gathering with his family, he propped a book on the dinner table and said: “here is a play you have to make”. Frankly, if I was to be paid a dollar for each time someone tells me that, my retirement fund would look much better. Alvan- my then-fiancée-now-husband and colleague- and I looked at each other.
I think I said something like: “really?” He pressed on. “Have you ever read Jesús Colón’s stories? ” I couldn’t say I had, as it would have been obvious I was bluffing. I didn’t even know who Jesús Colón was. And the book didn’t look like a play. The title of the book was “The Way It Was and Other Writings”. It was a small book (whew!). And then the elevator speech: “this is a collection of stories written by a Puerto Rican immigrant during the 1920s” It is the first account of the Puerto Rican migration written in English by one of us”. Blink blink. That worked. He gave me the book to take home. And as I rode the #1 uptown train, I began to read.
It is hard at times when friends approach me with an idea for a play. If I don’t plan to do anything with it, I try to let them know as soon as possible. They also know that if I like the idea, it might take years before they will see it realized, if at all. But that is now. This was 1983, and my ideas were young, and in many ways, new – at least for me. My fascination with turning non dramatic texts into plays and deconstructing existing plays was just beginning to take shape. My own process was not quite there. Pregones Theater was about five years old, and we were everywhere.
I told my future compadre that I had loved the stories, which was true. And then…I put the book aside. It isn’t that I didn’t think the book had dramatic potential. But other projects were lined up, lots of traveling, the building of our first theater at St. Ann’s Church, and on and on.
Before I knew it, it was almost Year 2000. A new century before us! Over the years, and without any deadline in mind, I became familiar with Jesús Colón. I had bought a second book of his: “A Puerto Rican In New York and Other Sketches”. To my surprise, the photos on the front and back covers of the edition were of a street event in front of what was then Teatro 4 on 104th Street in East Harlem. We had partnered with Teatro 4 quite a bit in the early 80s, and had performed at that street event. Blink blink. I wondered… maybe it would make sense to… I quietly began to read both books again with fresh eyes. Alvan did the same.
2000 – New century, new space, new everything! In 2000 Pregones Theater moved to what would be our permanent home, even if that home would take 5 years to become a reality. A set of buildings on Walton Avenue in The Bronx provided the perfect setting for us. The largest building would be transformed into a theater and since we were far from ready for it, we turned a white house adjacent to it into a performance studio that sat all of 30 people in it! The house was white, so we baptized it La Casa Blanca. And we began to program, to create chamber theater pieces that would play well in its tiny stage.
I can’t remember the moment when I decided to work with Jesús Colón’s stories. But I do remember the first story I was committed to: “Little Things Are Big”. Alvan and I both loved the idea. He wanted to be involved. Next thing I knew, I was photocopying the story and sharing it with creative partners Jorge Merced and Desmar Guevara. I was ready. Gracias compadre Roberto Marrero. Ay, Jesús!
Little Things Are Big (Published in 1961) by Jesús Colón. Here is an excerpt:
What would I do if she let out a scream as I offered my help?It was a long minute. I passed on by her as if I saw nothing. As if I was insensitive to her need. Like a rude animal, I just moved on, half running by the long subway platform, leaving the children and the valise and her with the baby on her arm. I took the steps of the long concrete stairs in twos until I reached the street above and the cold air slapped my warm face. This is what racism… and prejudice… can do to people… and to a nation!