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Jose Rivera Uses Politics In His Art: Twines Puerto Rico’s Statehood Debate With A Romantic Folk Tale…'Adoration Of The Old Woman' Reviewed

Jose Rivera Uses Politics In His Art


September 21, 2002
Copyright © 2002 The Press-Enterprise Riverside, CA. All rights reserved.

LA JOLLA-Puerto Rican independence is an issue Jose Rivera has wanted to tackle for some years, but the successful playwright says it is only recently that he's felt ready to address his native island's political future.

He does it in the world premiere of "Adoration of the Old Woman," which opens Sunday at the La Jolla Playhouse.

" "Sometimes as a writer you don't feel ready in your life to deal with certain subjects," Rivera said. "I hadn't felt ready in terms of maturity to tackle this.

"The question becomes, 'How do you do this subject?' and that wasn't apparent to me for a long, long time -- what kind of story you would create in order to be plausible."

The result is a mystical play about a Puerto Rican family dealing with their own generational changes and the status of their country, a U.S. territory.

Rivera, who is best known for "Cloud Tectonics" and "Marisol," acknowledges that the play's message may not resonate as much in Southern California, which has a relatively small Puerto Rican population, as it would in New York -- but says the play is universal enough to appeal to everyone.

"I think in the East there would probably be a deeper emotional reaction to the play. But here, the experience between Mexico and the U.S. has been no less traumatic. Probably more so because there was war and land that was lost and those kinds of things.

"Also, the play deals with identity, which is a very powerful theme in the English-speaking world." Rivera also admits there is some irony in writing a play about Puerto Rico in English. While he was born in Puerto Rico, he moved to the United States when he was 4, and says his own command of Spanish isn't that strong -- "I couldn't do this interview in Spanish."

But he hopes to produce the play in Puerto Rico eventually, and if he does, will translate it into Spanish.

He also says that even though he's now written the play he'd wanted to write, the process of finishing it isn't over until the work is on stage in front of an audience. He says the hardest part is giving the work he's written to others -- director, actors, set designers.

"Legal ownership belongs to the writer, but the process of a play involves giving up artistic control to other people."

Rivera says that in some ways, he prefers a play's premiere, because as the author he plays a more important role in thisfirst production. "When you begin the process, nobody knows the play as well as the writer does. So the writer becomes the source of all information in terms of the meaning of the play, sources of imagery and things like that. You are a very important resource, especially in a world premiere when there's no precedent for that play."

Rivera says there is a certain nervousness when he is invited to see subsequent productions of his earlier works.

"It's a little frightening only because, especially in the case of a university production, they've taken the trouble to fly you out, put you up in a hotel, treated you like a celebrity, and then you get in the audience and you think, 'This could be terrible.' "

Inspired By A `Haunted' Bed | Puerto Rican Statehood Issue Spawns Rivera's `Adoration'

Jennifer de Poyen

September 22, 2002
Copyright © 2002 The San Diego Union-Tribune. All rights reserved.

When Jose Rivera was a boy, he loved to sit at his mother's knee and listen to stories of his Puerto Rican ancestors. There were chronicles of inflamed passions and family betrayals, of lovers crossed and disasters scarcely averted. And then there was his grandfather's tale of a conquistador in full armor, astride a white horse, bursting out of the trunk of a tree that the old man climbed as a boy.

"The stories were just outrageous, and they were told totally deadpan. This was my life as a little boy," Rivera recalled recently. "Most people would separate the two: There's reality here, there's the supernatural there; there's the waking life here, there's dreams over there.

"In the world of my youth, there wasn't that division. There were elements of the fantastical, of the dream, and these things become interchangeable."

Fortunately for the theater-going public, Rivera has never felt the need to choose between the real world and the realm of dreams and nightmares, fantasy and folklore. Instead, he's taken the tall tales that buzz in his brain and transformed them into stories for the stage. His journey from his first realist, Chekhov-inspired play to his current perch as one of America's foremost Latino playwrights has been one of honoring the "mad realism" he experienced as a child, and of trusting his ear for how people speak.

"There weren't any books in the house except for a Bible. And my parents on my mother's side were illiterate -- they could only sign their names with an `X,' " said Rivera, who lives in Los Angeles. "Because I grew up without books, I was always listening, so my ear is really good.

"There were incredible storytellers in my family. Especially my mother -- she's dazzling. She can sit down and tell stories for hours without taking a breath. So when I did write, even when I attempted a novel, it was always about what people were saying, not `It was a dark and stormy night.' "

Rivera has returned to La Jolla Playhouse -- which has commissioned three of his scripts, debuted four of his plays and shepherded some of the best productions of his work -- with his latest play, "Adoration of the Old Woman."

If Rivera's work has consistently found a home in La Jolla, says Playhouse artistic director Des McAnuff, it's because the theater's "job is to create opportunities for writers to do their dream projects here."

That, and McAnuff recognizes Rivera's gifts.

"Jose brings a unique voice to the theater," he says. "He consistently creates complex characters. He's brilliant with language, and he has an amazing grasp of magical realism. That term has become a cliche, but the way that Jose's work lives on the stage on so many levels is very rare."

The Playhouse premiere, which opens tonight at Rivera's beloved Mandell Weiss Forum, is directed by Jo Bonney. Best known for her work with Eric Bogosian, she also staged the New York production of Rivera's "References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot" after its debut at South Coast Repertory Theatre in Costa Mesa.

From family to fruition

"Adoration" began to germinate seven years ago, when Rivera returned to Puerto Rico to bury his father. After the funeral, Rivera remained for a time on the island of his birth, bunking with his mother's family in a little barrio called Las Arenas. It was there he met his great-aunt, and discovered the central conceit for the play.

"She was a very old, very wacky woman who was incredibly upset because she couldn't find anyone to deal with her bed problem, which was that it was haunted by the dead mistress of her dead husband," Rivera said. "She couldn't sleep, she was crying all the time, and I was just dumbfounded. I thought I was the luckiest writer who ever lived."

As it happened, Rivera was going through a turbulent time of his own. At 40, his father was dead; his marriage to Heather Dundas, which had produced two children, was falling apart; and after a disappointing spell in television, he was trying to write feature films. Not ready to embark on a major writing project, he put the story in his back pocket and let it grow, knowing that one day it would bear fruit.

Always mindful of the advice of his mentor, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Rivera knew that he could use the old woman's haunted bed to tell the larger, and largely untold, story of the Puerto Rican struggle for self-determination.

"In my experience, an audience will give you one thing: I'll believe that, and then you have to prove the rest. It's like the `Wizard of Oz': OK, I'll believe that a tornado took you to this other world, and then we'll see what happens next," said the 47- year-old Rivera, who is shuttling between La Jolla and Argentina, where Walter Salles ("Central Station") is directing Rivera's first feature film screenplay, "Motorcycle Diaries," about Che Guevara's travels in South America.

"It's like when you sit at your grandparent's knee, or around the campfire. You want to go there, you want to believe."

Once his life settled down, and the Playhouse's artistic staff began asking after the play that had been commissioned years before, there was only one missing piece of the puzzle: a Latina actress who had the range and experience to embody the complex character he envisioned. Then, two years ago, at the Playhouse to see Federico Garcia Lorca's classic tragedy "Blood Wedding," he discovered Ivonne Coll, whose cante jondo, or deep song, and striking portrayal of Lorca's matriarchal figure formed one of the most memorable theatrical events of the last few seasons.

"Seeing `Blood Wedding' convinced me to write the play," Rivera said. "When I saw Ivonne, I knew I could write a really expansive role for her."

Coll, for her part, is thrilled to be playing a tailor-made role that also "embodies my country, the soul of my people, the struggle for the freedom we have never had." Speaking by phone prior to the play's first preview performance, the former Miss Puerto Rico spoke volubly about her debut as the centenarian Dona Belen.

"I love her wit, her intelligence, her strength, her folk wisdom," said Coll, who spent her first 27 years on the island before moving to what Puerto Ricans call "the mainland," where she has lived another 27 years. "She's 105 and going for 110. She was born in the year of the gringo invasion -- that's what she calls the American takeover -- and she still has a lot to figure out."

The daughter of a jibaro -- a Puerto Rican expression for people who come from the countryside and who have "the earth in their soul" -- Coll is drawing on three influential women in shaping her role.

"Every Sunday when I was a child, my mother would take me to the country to visit these old women, and this was the only life they knew, their campo, their farm," Coll said fondly. "They weren't sophisticated or rich, but they were rich in the land, they possessed the land, and it possessed them, too. So now I am channeling Dona Juanita, Dona Panchita and my mother to portray this beautiful jibaro spirit."

Poetic and, for Rivera, unusually realistic, "Adoration" is also an overtly political play, dealing in direct terms with the internecine struggle to determine Puerto Rico 's future. Although mainlanders, and particularly faraway West Coasters, are largely unaware of Puerto Rican politics beyond the controversial U.S. Navy bombing drills on the outlying island of Vieques , the debate among proponents of various constitutional models -- independence, statehood and commonwealth -- is fierce, and often defines people's relationships to each other.

"Adoration" is perhaps the most prominent American play to take on Puerto Rican politics of any era. There is a Rene Solivan play in development, "Miss Lebron and Her Escorts," about a Puerto Rican woman who, to draw attention to the plight of the island's independence, fired shots in the air in the U.S. Congress in the '50s. (In a recent staged reading, Coll tackled the part of Lolita Lebron.) But there's a collective sense of excitement at the Playhouse about Rivera's take on contemporary Puerto Rican politics.

"I think this play," McAnuff said, "has the potential to make a significant contribution to the American theater."

In "Adoration," the debate between independence and statehood is embodied by Cheo, a fiery idealist portrayed by John Ortiz, a notable interpreter of Rivera's work ("Cloud Tectonics," "Sueno," "The Street of the Sun") and by Ismael, a complacent, suave businessman played by Gary Perez, who appeared in Berkeley Repertory Theatre's 1997 production of "Cloud Tectonics," a Playhouse commission.

Of his own politics, Rivera says he sides with the more charismatic independista Cheo, though he acknowledges that he doesn't "have to live with the consequences of independence, whatever they may be."

"When they asked Socrates why health is important, his answer was, `It's obvious why health is important; you don't have to ask the question.' For me, independence is like that. Puerto Rico is one of the last remaining places in the world that isn't its own country," said Rivera, pointing to Palestinians and Irish Catholics as two other peoples who have sought self-determination.

Coll, who remains a prominent figure in the land of her birth, which is still home to all her family, believes that freedom from U.S. rule is Puerto Rico 's divine right.

"I believe we have a God-given right to possess this island, to determine its future," Coll said, sounding much like America's Founding Fathers. "Whatever else you might believe, you have to love the country for what it represents -- the soul of the people."

Rivera's goal for his play in La Jolla is to make "some kind of contribution to the debate. Maybe here it will have the effect of raising some consciousness about it.

But if it ever gets done in Puerto Rico , he says with a laugh, "I'd like nothing more than to see a riot on opening night."


"Adoration of the Old Woman"

Opens 8 tonight. Continues 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Through Oct. 20

La Jolla Playhouse, UCSD, La Jolla

$39 to $49 (858) 550-1010 or

'Adoration' ; Big Ideas, But Little To Adore


September 24, 2002
Copyright © 2002 The Press-Enterprise Riverside, CA. All rights reserved.

LA JOLLA-Even in these times of heightened sensitivity, it ought to be possible to question the United States through art. To ask whether this nation lives up to its ideals. To write a play that can cause even the most inflexible of us to to re-examine its shortcomings.

Jose Rivera did not write that play, although that seems to be the rather fuzzy aim of "Adoration of the Old Woman," now in its world premiere at the La Jolla Playhouse.

Nor did he write a play that explores what it means to be Puerto Rican, although the island commonwealth is the setting for the play.

Instead, Rivera disappointingly uses "Adoration" to endlessly repeat the same cliches from seemingly every anti-U.S. rally and demonstration over the past 30 years.

Even if one agrees with those political sentiments, such threadbare imagery makes for very tiresome theater.

The story takes place in a small village in the near future of Puerto Rico , where yet another vote on whether to seek independence or statehood is about to take place. Vanessa, a young American woman of Puerto Rican heritage, has been sent to her great-grandmother's as punishment by her parents.

Once there, she is courted both sexually and politically by two local men -- one representing the pro-independence movement, the other pro- statehood .

An early confrontation between the nationalist Cheo and the pro-U.S. Ismael furnishes one of the few moments of real originality in the play. Rivera provides a short bit of insight into what is clearly a heated dispute within the Puerto Rican community. Unfortunately, he quickly flinches from such risk-taking and retreats to the safer ground of rehashing old slogans.

Rivera also lets the character of the 100-year-old great-grandmother, Dona Belen, come frighteningly close to originality a few times before likewise reining her in. During the opening scene, when Vanessa has just arrived on her doorstep, Dona Belen mutters, "The hole in the human heart is infinite and can't be filled by Kmart."

But other than these few gems, Rivera has his characters trading bumper sticker political slogans and the sort of simplistic political explanations one hears in a college dorm room at 2 a.m.

The actors are game, and take a stab at breathing some life into the drones handed them to portray. Tamara Mello gives Vanessa a certain jaundiced view of things, so she doesn't come across as a completely spoiled mall rat. And Gary Perez's portrayal of the pro- statehood Ismael is of a likable man who lives life as it comes.

Ivonne Coll gives Dona Belen a strong, fighting spirit and excels at portraying the woman's mystical beliefs without mockery or condescension.

John Ortiz has perhaps the toughest job of all -- trying to make the nationalistic Cheo three-dimensional. Ortiz struggled a bit with this challenge -- most of the evening, Cheo came across as simply too strident to be capable of growth. But Ortiz never backs down from the challenge, and his Cheo is at least likable and charming.

Further contributing to the muddled feeling of "Adoration" is the use of halting, stilted English to simulate Vanessa's supposedly limited Spanish.

Why not have her speak in Spanish and then have another character translate? In fact, at one point, Dona Belen's words ARE translated -- but from English to English, only adding to the confusion. And toward the end, when the ghost Adoracion (who haunts Dona Belen's bed) is speaking to Vanessa, her pidgin English borders on becoming an insult to Spanish-speakers.

But such is the danger of trading in cliches -- once you get started, it's hard to stop at the folks you originally set out to criticize.

Theater Review A Tale Of Politics And Passion Jose Rivera's 'Adoration Of The Old Woman' Twines Puerto Rico’s Statehood Debate With A Romantic Folk Tale


September 24, 2002
Copyright © 2002 Los Angeles Times. All rights reserved.

LA JOLLA--Two stories are vying for control of Jose Rivera's new play, "Adoration of the Old Woman."

The story that takes up most of the time at La Jolla Playhouse examines the quandary facing Puerto Rico : Should it become the 51st state, should it become an independent nation or should it retain its commonwealth status ?

This topic is seldom seen on stage, at least on the mainland. So it feels fresh, though Rivera sometimes uses it as a mere pretext for a situation out of a romance novel.

Yet the title of the play refers to the second story, which is about a very old woman (Ivonne Coll) whose bed is haunted by the ghost of her dead husband's lover, a young woman named Adoracion (Marisol Padilla Sanchez). This side of the play is taken directly from Rivera's experiences with his great aunt, whom he visited in Las Arenas, Puerto Rico .

The tale of the old woman and Adoracion probably means more to Rivera, but it doesn't feel as fresh or as urgent as the play's political content. The major revelation that emerges from the ghost story is a development that we can see coming far in advance.

Rivera hasn't found a meaningful way to unite his two stories. After the play was over, I wondered if the old woman, or Adoracion perhaps, is a metaphor for Puerto Rico , or for the United States or.... I gave up. Rivera may have a metaphor worked out in his head, but it hasn't translated to the stage.

Ultimately, the titular narrative feels like a folk tale included primarily as a nod to magical realism, one of Rivera's favorite genres. One of the lines in the play acknowledges this, joking about the old woman's story as an example of magical realism. But the ghost story also feels like a distraction from the more compelling material about the political situation.

The political dispute is painted in broad strokes as a tussle between two men who are both attracted to the old woman's 17-year-old great-granddaughter Vanessa (Tamara Mello). This cynical girl has been sent to Puerto Rico from her home in Paterson, N.J., in the hope that some brushing up against her family's roots will straighten her out.

At first, she's courted by Ismael (Gary Perez), a real estate broker who is a fervent believer in statehood . Next she's attracted to Cheo (John Ortiz), a young, U.S.-educated advocate of independence. The controversy gets an extra jolt from the fact that the play is set in "the near future," before an election in which the issue will be decided by the people of Puerto Rico .

It doesn't take long to figure out where Rivera's sympathies lie. The great-grandmother, the voice of old Puerto Rico , wants independence. The pro- statehood Ismael is drawn as an older lech, while Cheo's passions are so pure that he refuses to be diverted from political campaigning for a month before he and Vanessa consummate their mutual attraction on Election Day.

In the last part of the play, the offstage melodrama gets extremely hot and heavy. But the plot turns feel more like a writer's machinations than like something that actually might happen.

Mello, at the play's center, has a high voice that emphasizes her youth. It seems a little unlikely that her great-grandmother, who is very religious, would smile so benignly on her casual comings and goings with two older men.

But certainly a woman this old is beyond noticing such details? Not necessarily. This woman notices a lot, and Coll (who is actually in her 50s) has such a strong voice that her advanced age isn't especially credible. She's that old mainly so that Rivera can say she was born in 1898, when the Yankees invaded.

In Jo Bonney's staging, Ortiz and Perez are very good as the men, even when stuck with lame exchanges with Vanessa. After an initially bold presence, Sanchez mostly fades into the woodwork.

"Adoration of the Old Woman," La Jolla Playhouse, La Jolla Village Drive and Torrey Pines Road. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m.; Saturdays-Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends Oct. 20. $39-$49. (858) 550-1010. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

Marisol Padilla Sanchez...Adoracion

Ivonne Coll...Dona Belen

Tamara Mello...Vanessa

Gary Perez...Ismael

John Ortiz...Cheo

By Jose Rivera. Directed by Jo Bonney. Set by Neil Patel. Costumes by Emilio Sosa. Lighting by Chris Akerlind. Sound by Darron West. Stage manager Diana Moser.

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