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Manhattan, 1964: a Puerto Rican migrant family struggles for its piece of the American Dream.

February 12 to March 5
Theater for the New City (Cino Theater), 155 First Ave. (at E. 10th St.)
Presented by Theater for the New City
Thursdays through Saturdays at 8:30 pm, Sundays at 3:00 pm
$10/tdf, (212) 254-1109
The plays of YoIanda Rodriguez portray the Puerto Rican migrant experience in new, revealing ways and often with epic themes. Her newest drama, "To Kiss the Cheek of the Moon," deals with the struggles and dreams of a Puerto Rican family that has moved to New York City's Upper West Side from Vieques--an island municipality that has been, since 1942, a firing range and weapons storage facility for the U.S. Navy. Directed by Theater for the New City's Artistic Director, Crystal Field, the play will be presented by TNC, 155 First Ave., February 12 to March 5.

Set in the hope-filled year of 1964, the play depicts the family life and strivings of a man named Evaristo Quiñones, who carries with him the ill effects of polluted drinking water caused by the Navy bombardments he grew up near. The play opens with the revelation that his brother, a promising baseball player, has died from the same sickness. Evaristo, a self-taught electronics whiz, is fighting for his share of the American Dream despite the racism and other social obstacles of the period. But soon it becomes apparent that he has two crosses to bear: the poisoning that is ravaging his body and the ghost of his beloved brother, which is ravaging his soul. Evaristo regards his poisoning as an inevitability, refusing to see a doctor for treatment, and is becoming increasingly separated from his loving wife, Magdalena, who is six months pregnant. At this point Santeria, the religious/folk magic of their home island, comes into play.

The family is visited by an owl, which roosts on the fire escape and eats grapes out of their hands. Alone of her family, Magdalena's mother, Alejandrina, correctly recognizes the bird as a messenger of death. With all the forces of Santeria at her disposal, she takes up spiritual arms against this supernatural opponent in order to buy the family more time. Her intervention not only brings into focus many issues of family politics in Hispanic immigrants, but also (and more importantly to the play), the spiritual components of fate and destiny that haunt new Americans.

Throughout the play, the career of Puerto Rican-born baseball star Roberto Clemente becomes a symbol of hope and inspiration to Evaristo. It is also a painful reminder of how his brother's potential in the sport was cut short. When Clemente is crudely denigrated by fans and announcers, it serves as a warning that no matter how talented a person of color becomes, he will still be subject to racism and disrespect. Evaristo encounters similar treatment when his talents and inventions invoke no encouragement, only suspicion and indifference.

Magdalena's younger sister--a fiery, kind-hearted girl and enthusiastic Beatles fan--is an example of "all the wrong choices." She conducts an ill-fated affair with a married man that leads to her eventual humiliation, but learns that personal growth and self-respect are more important than the latest fashions. The play ends on a positive but bitterly realistic note: Evaristo chooses life over death, knowing full well that his electronics genius might never be acknowledged. Magdalena reminds us that if you are aware of your gifts, neither racism nor the indifference of society can take them away from you.

Playwright Yolanda Rodriguez writes for a large canvas and distinctly documents Hispanic history and culture. Her "The Cause" (1995) was a dramatization of the Puerto Rican independence movement inspired by the life of Lolita Lebron, a Puerto Rican nationalist who was jailed as a political prisoner for 25 years and pardoned by President Carter in 1979. Her "Emigración: An American Play" (1994) portrayed the exodus to New York of Jibaro (pronounced "hee-ba-row") mountain people from Puerto Rico. She is an emerging playwright with eleven full-length plays, two one-acts, a children's novel and an adult novel now to her credit. Her plays were not produced until she was discovered by TNC's Director, Crystal Field. Says Field, "TNC is nurturing this writer because we feel that she is well on the road to becoming a major American playwright. Her plays have not received the attention they are due." TNC presented Rodriguez' first professional production, "Rising Sun, Falling Star," featuring Puerto Rican star Jamie Sanchez and directed by Robert Landau, in February, 1993. The work has since been published in a Penguin collection, "Nuestro New York: an Anthology of New York Puerto Rican Plays." "To Kiss the Cheek of the Moon" is Ms. Rodriguez's third collaboration with Crystal Field.

Ms. Rodriguez has received a NYFA Grant for Playwriting in 1996, a Berrilla Kerr Foundation Grant in 1995 and the National Latino Conference Award in 1993. She is a graduate of New York's High School of Music and Art. She attended Colgate University and received her BA in journalism from NYU. She is a member of The Dramatists Guild and the Pen American Center.

The actors are Michael Vazquez, Sol Echeverria, Mira Rivera, Desteny Cruz and Sergio Garcia Aguilar. Set design is by Donald L. Brooks; lighting design is by Jon D. Andreadakis; costume design is by Marisa Timperman; director of stage production is Mark Marcante. [NYTW]

Related article: About Theater for the New City.

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