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Actors In All-Latino Cast Savor A 'Historic Moment'


December 2, 2003
Copyright ©2003 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All rights reserved.

The Broadway cast of "Anna in the Tropics," from left, top row: David Zayas, Priscilla Lopez, Victor Argo and Jimmy Smits; bottom row: Vanessa Aspillaga, John Ortiz and Daphne Rubin-Vega.
PHOTO: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

When Victor Argo began his acting career in the 1950's, he found that to get work he had to drop Jiménez, his real surname. Priscilla Lopez stuck to her name a decade later and found it easier to land jobs, achieving early success as Diana Morales in "A Chorus Line."

And a generation later Jimmy Smits could hone his marquee status playing Latinos in the television hits "L.A. Law" and "N.Y.P.D. Blue" while David Zayas could abandon a career as a New York City police officer to chase a childhood dream in the theater district he once patrolled.

These actors, part of the ensemble cast of "Anna in the Tropics" at the Royale Theater, have taken starkly different paths to Broadway. But their coming together in the first Pulitzer Prize-winning drama written by a Latino is laden with symbolism for them.

"Anna" is the Broadway debut for Nilo Cruz, a Cuban-American playwright, and for most of the seven actors, who also include Vanessa Aspillaga, John Ortiz and Daphne Rubin-Vega. (For Ms. Rubin-Vega, the original Mimi in "Rent," and Ms. Lopez, a veteran of nearly a dozen Broadway productions, this is a return to Broadway.)

At a recent news conference for Hispanic reporters, all seven actors seemed to share the same emotional connection to the play. Ms. Lopez was overcome by tears as she and the others spoke about their pride in being part of what Mr. Smits called "a historic moment."

"You know what could happen with this play in terms of opening doors," Mr. Smits said. "Like Nilo, we have a lot of talented artists waiting for their moment."

"Anna," which opened last month to mixed reviews, is a rarity: it is a Latino-themed show on Broadway, and a drama at that.

A study released last month by the League of American Theaters and Producers showed that Broadway audiences are overwhelmingly non-Hispanic white (83 percent) and that in the 2002-3 season Latinos accounted for only 4 percent of ticket buyers. The marketing team behind "Anna in the Tropics" has been trying to draw more Latinos to the show, advertising in Spanish-language newspapers, handing out fliers at Latin clubs and contacting upscale Latino groups like bar and medical associations, said Charles Rice-Gonzalez, a publicist for the play.

Regardless of how it does at the box office, "Anna" has already cemented its special significance to a cast that embodies the changing landscape for Latinos in theater, television and film. Their contrasting experiences are exemplified by Mr. Argo, Ms. Lopez, Mr. Smits and Mr. Zayas, all New York natives of Puerto Rican descent who were caught up in the Latin explosion – in population numbers, recognition and cultural influence – at different stages of their careers.

At 69, Mr. Argo is the oldest of the group and dates his earliest acting days to when, he said, "even the criminals were white."

"There was absolutely no work for Latinos and blacks," he said in an interview.

The time was the late 1950's and Mr. Argo, then known as Victor Jiménez, had to make ends meet by selling jewelry, working as a printer and driving a cab. To make matters worse, the comedian Bill Dana had appropriated the name José Jiménez to portray a Hispanic character who spoke exaggerated broken English.

"I felt the prejudice was against the name, not even against me," he said. "They couldn't conceive that someone with an obvious Latino name could play anything. The only actor working was José Ferrer, and I don't think people knew he was Puerto Rican."

Mr. Argo adopted his stage name in the mid-60's, picking Argo because it was of unclear stock. He said he soon was swamped with parts for Russians, Jews and other characters. For most of his career, he said, he has played non-Hispanic parts.

But not fitting the Latin stereotype cut both ways. In the 1970's, Mr. Argo said, he was sent away from an audition because he didn't look enough like a Puerto Rican to the people in charge of casting for an "All in the Family" episode. They relented, he said, after "I put on a bright yellow shirt and a fake mustache."

Today, Mr. Argo said, he finds work playing more realistic Latinos like Santiago, the Cuban patriarch in "Anna." "It's obvious that things have changed dramatically for Latino actors," he said.

Ms. Lopez, who is 55 and who became a Broadway dancer and actress in the 1960's, said she had kept her name against the advice of many because doing otherwise would have felt like a family betrayal. The theater still offered her a wide range of roles, and in 1980 she won a Tony Award for her performance as Harpo Marx in "A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine."

But Ms. Lopez said she encountered typecasting when she tried to break into television and film and was constantly asked to fake a Spanish accent to be more convincingly Hispanic. Latino actors still complain about that as a common expectation. "I can do an accent, but I won't do an accent," she said she told a television producer one day after one accent request too many. "I'm a reality. This is what I speak like."

She said that she got the part with one string attached: "Just make sure you bring that Latin temper with you," the producer told her.

Ms. Lopez, whose looks have led her to Italian, Jewish and other non-Hispanic roles, said that the wave of Latin popularity came just in time for her to be in demand for the part of a mother. In "Anna" she plays Ofelia, the matriarch. Not long ago she played a mother to a more famous Lopez, Jennifer, in the movie "Maid in Manhattan." But she said that for many years she felt like an outsider among Latino actors because of her mainstream roles, and sometimes even felt guilty for working while so many Latinos did not.

But Mr. Smits, who is in his 40's but would not disclose his precise age, said that Ms. Lopez had been one of his role models – Raul Julia was another – when he came on the acting scene in the 1980's."There's always five or six faces," he said.

Mr. Smits, whose dark looks come from a Puerto Rican mother and a father from Suriname, in South America, studied at Brooklyn College and Cornell University and cut his teeth with classical stage roles. When he first went for television and film roles, he said, he was relegated to "crook of the week." But he also ran into people like Steven Bochco, who helped make him a household name by casting him in 1986 as the dashing lawyer Victor Sifuentes in "L.A. Law," no accent required.

"It's about finding those people who are willing to say, `Come and play in my playground,' " said Mr. Smits, who has won an Emmy and a Golden Globe award.

Mr. Zayas, who at 41 has been a professional actor for barely 10 years, said he didn't remember "not getting a role because I'm Latino." In one instance, he said, he even had a television part tailored for him after he auditioned for it. The character, originally an Irish policeman, became a Latino.

Mr. Zayas, a member of the LAByrinth Theater Company, said that as a child he attended a performing-arts middle school in the Bronx but that his father, a foreman with the Sanitation Department, worried that acting would not ensure a good living. Mr. Zayas joined the Air Force and then the Police Department, where for seven years he watched actors coming and going while patrolling the theater district.

He quit the force in 2000 when he was offered a recurring role on "Oz," an HBO series, and could no longer juggle acting and policing.

Mr. Zayas and Mr. Smits said that what Latino actors on Broadway and in Hollywood still miss are more lead roles and the breadth of roles commensurate with the wealth of stories found in the Latino population, now the country's largest minority group. Though they and Ms. Lopez and Mr. Argo said that they would not want to play just Latino roles, they all embraced the poetically drawn characters in "Anna" as the quality work that, in Mr. Smits's words, "is going to take us to the next level."

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