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New York Daily News

New Latino Plays Take Center Stage


February 27, 2002
Copyright © 2002
Daily News, L.P. All Rights Reserved.

Cyn Cael Rossi was a 13-year-old aspiring playwright when she began seeking out plays about people like herself.

"I was looking for works that were identifiable, but there were no voices [representing] Caribbean-Latina playwrights," says Cael Rossi, who grew up on the lower East Side in a Puerto Rican-Spanish family.

It was while attending the High School of Performing Arts in Manhattan that Cael Rossi had a "life-altering moment." She says the best her teachers could recommend to her were black-themed plays, such as Ntozake Shange's "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf."

"Right then is when I decided to be a poet/playwright," she says. "It had become a desperate search for a voice we all could relate to and a struggle we could understand."

Nearly 20 years later, Cael Rossi - now a playwright ("Homegirls on the Prowl"), filmmaker (the upcoming "Rhythm of the Saints") and theater producer - has joined with members of two other local production companies who shared the same experience growing up.

"It became our mission," she says, "to bring the voice of the Latino experience to the forefront."

The result is "Songs From Coconut Hill," a theater festival that begins Friday at Manhattan's HERE Performance Art Center and features seven Latino-themed, English-language plays performed over 10 days.

"There still isn't enough support for [Latino] writers," says Cael Rossi. "What we wanted to do was create a supportive network and give these artists the opportunity to get their work out there."

The same exposure helps Hispanic actors and backstage technicians showcase their talents, too.

Yet it's highly unlikely the festival would ever have come off had it not been for the trio of companies banding together - after years of friendly competition and mutual admiration.

In addition to Cael Rossi's Cynalex Productions, "Coconut Hill" is being presented by LatinoWorld/MundoLatino Inc. and Veronica Caicedo of Caicedo Productions. While each company has a long track record of staging Latino-themed works, they've been mostly small, Off-Off- Broadway showcases that often have struggled to find an audience.

"We wanted to work with each other because we knew each other's work," says LatinoWorld's Jesse Mojica, "and because there's strength in numbers and the power of unity.

"When you've been around for a while, you keep running into the same people who you know are as committed as you are," he adds. "Our companies have all done productions individually, and done them fairly well. But we knew that by putting all our talents together we could focus our energy into trying to reach a larger audience."

Among the new works are three shows dealing with Latina identity: Cael Rossi's "Lali's Song," about a girl who travels from Puerto Rico to New York in the '40s; Magdalena Gomez's one-woman show, "Chopping," and "Yo Soy Latina" by Linda Nieves-Powell.

Also included is Jaime Velez's one-man show about fatherhood, "Mi Familia," and "Vegetable Hanging in Casa de Jota," writer-director Coati-Mundi Hernandez's one-man piece about Cuban entertainer Chico Cruz Cortez.

A pair of familiar plays by more established writers open the festival - Carmen Rivera's slightly revamped "Betty's Garage," about an underground railroad for abused women, and "Mama's Boyz," Candido Tirado's surreal tale of drug dealers that made its debut at last year's New York City Hip Hop Theater Festival.

Despite the emphasis on new works, "it was important to include individuals like Carmen and Candido," says Cael Rossi. "They're examples of people who have made a long-term commitment to Latino theater and are leading the charge."

Directed by Mickey Lemle.

Running time: 93 mins. Not rated: Discussion of drugs.

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