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The Hartford Courant

American Dreaming Inspires Playwright; What Happens When It's Realized?


April 10, 2003
Copyright © 2003
The Hartford Courant. All rights reserved. 

For Edwin Sanchez's maintenance-man father, owning his own home and being his own boss was the American dream.

The older man never realized that dream, but his playwright son has.

His new play, ``Diosa,'' begins in previews tonight at Hartford Stage and opens Wednesday, running until May 11.

Inspired by Rita Hayworth's life, the play explores a family's quest for the American dream in one of the nation's most storied places: Hollywood.

Melia Bensussen, the play's director, says show business endures as a compelling metaphor for the American dream because entertainment offers ``a very clear moment of success.''

Edmond Genest plays Kramer, the Hollywood studio executive in ``Diosa.'' His real-life moments of success came too late for his mason father to see them.

Although Genest shared his father's first name, he was hardly a chip off the old block. His father never really understood or appreciated his show-biz aspirations. Still, building and sustaining a career in the theater has been Genest's dream.

For that reason, the veteran actor says he understands the family in ``Diosa,'' with its vain and demanding father, Miguel (Robert Montano), and daughter Josefa, who shares her father's passion for dancing but not his hunger for show-business success.

Josie de Guzman draws upon experiences she doesn't seek to explain in crafting the character of Amber, Josefa's mother and rival for her husband's attention. ``I have known women like that,'' says de Guzman of Amber, who begins to snap after years of bending her will to suit her husband. Such women have long been staples in Hispanic families, she says.

Bensussen, who moved to California from Mexico as an adolescent, says people of all backgrounds will be able to see people and relationships they recognize in the play, which is animated by Latin dance sequences.

Like the Hollywood saga, she says, the family drama is also an enduring part of theater. The family ``is the microcosm of the world,'' she says. ``It's where our identities are first formed.''

Indeed, Bensussen says, being a mother helps inform her work as a director. In each role, she says, she seeks to balance setting limits while allowing for freedom and exploration.

Sanchez says his exploration of dance and theater might have begun when he watched his mother and father dance each New Year's Eve, the only times he saw them dance.

There was something in the way Rita Hayworth moved in the film ``Gilda'' that attracted Sanchez to the shy New Yorker-turned-Hollywood bombshell.

In the movie, Hayworth rolled her shoulders when she danced, the way women in his family did, says Sanchez who grew up in Puerto Rico and New York.

Hayworth and her Spanish father (her mother was Irish/English) danced as a team, Mexico and other places before she began a climb to 1940s Hollywood stardom, which included films such as ``The Loves of Carmen'' and a marriage to Orson Welles.

In the play, Josefa makes a similar, quick, but strange trip from the dance floor to the big screen, a trip that prompts an exploration of the costs of cultural assimilation and personal compromise.

Katrina Michaels, who plays Josefa, says she learned from her grandmother, Gloria Borrell, to stand her ground. Borrell's opposition to the communists in Cuba resulted in her spending 12 years in prison.

Following her grandmother's example, Michaels says, has caused her to live her life and pursue her career in ways that make her unable to think of any times when she's compromised her values.

Sanchez, who has trained as a dancer and worked as an actor, began writing plays because he refused to compromise his artistic and moral values. After years of being called to audition for roles like ``Gangster No. 1,'' he decided to produce work that would offer more varied roles for people of color, gays and lesbians.

Still, he faces people in theater who ask if particular characters ``have to be gay'' or people of color. Those questions, Sanchez says, stem from the assumption that changing the race or the sexual orientation of some of his characters would make his plays more commercial.

So far his plays, which include ``Clean'' and ``Icarus,'' have been commercial enough for the Yale School of Drama school graduate to buy the house he shares with landscape designer Alden Thayer, his partner for more than 20 years.

While Sanchez says he considers others' opinions and observations, he never seeks to censor himself: ``I wouldn't know how.''

So far Sanchez says he's been true to the credo he adopted as a very young man when, feeling out of place, he caught sight of his reflection in a Fifth Avenue store window and resolved: ``Never forget where you came from.''

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