Wednesday, March 11, 2020

'72 Miles to Go. . . '

     The Unitarian pastor at a desert church in Tucson is delivering a retirement sermon, starting with a string of corny jokes before getting to the moving message that will be his parting gift to his congregation. It is also the gift playwright Hilary Bettis gives to the audience at the Laura Pels Theatre in the world premiere of her play 72 Miles to Go. . .

     "The older I get, the more I realize that it's not the grand events that give our lives meaning and purpose," says Billy (Triney Sandoval). "It's the small everyday moments we take for granted."

     After mentioning the first time he saw his wife, the sound of his three children's small bare feet pattering around the house and the five of them sitting around the table making small talk over dinner, he says he regrets not paying enough attention to every little detail.

     "And now that I'm standing here in front of all of you, I can't help but ask why we don't realize how profound and beautiful and sacred these everyday moments are until they're gone."

     Over the course of an engaging 90 minutes we go back in time eight years from 2016 when the sermon is delivered to witness many small moments and their significance for this family because one member is missing, present only as a voice over a cell phone on speaker or an outgoing voice message. Anita (Maria Elena Ramirez) was deported to Nogales, Mexico -- 72 miles away -- and her husband and children live on the hope they will one day be reunited. It's a credit to Bettis's script, Jo Bonney's direction and the excellent ensemble cast that this show is not a downer but rather a little slice of love and humanity. With Rachel Hauck's set of a small apartment consisting of a kitchen and living room sparsely filled with inexpensive furniture, I felt a part of this world. The family was real to me and I cared about them.

     Christian (Bobby Moreno) is the oldest child; in the play he goes from 23 to 31. He was just a little boy when Billy found him and Anita hiding in the desert where Billy had been leaving water bottles for people crossing the border. Billy married Anita and raised Christian as his son, although their relationship is severed for years as the adult Christian tries to find work and lives in fear of being deported. He dreams of being a Marine but, being undocumented, this is impossible for him.

     The youngest child is Aaron (Tyler Alvarez), who ranges from 14 to 22. He's into science and is the one who does become a Marine. He loves his older brother and worries about him when he is late. This is a family well aware of the constant threat of deportation.

     Eva (Jacqueline Guillen) is the center of the family. Starting as a 17-year-old and continuing until she is 25, she is the caretaker, cooking and running the home and putting her life on hold until her mother returns.

     Anita tries to stay a part of their lives through her speaker phone conversations and the admonitions she leaves on her outgoing message, which tells them to eat vegetables. It's her way of being a good mother. She also tells Eva, "Don't wear too much makeup. All that blue eye shadow makes you look cheap." That's typical of what a mother would tell her daughter. It's just usually done face-to-face.

     The most moving of the phone exchanges is when Billy and Anita celebrate their wedding anniversary. Billy sits at the table with a candle lit and a vase of red roses, sharing with Anita by the cell's speaker phone the kind of loving conversation they would have had if they had been together. Then she says she wants to dance so Billy, a bit awkwardly at first, holds the small phone between his encircled arms and talks with Anita as he slowly dances around the room. It is heartbreaking and touching.

     The play moves in time to where it began, with Billy's farewell sermon. He suggests if we can just get over our our fears and egos, "then maybe, just maybe, we can treasure the people we love, the places we love, the everyday moments with every ounce of our existence.

     "Believe me, I know it's easier said than done. But that's what I'm going to try and do with the rest of my life.

     "Because this moment, right here, right now, is all we have."

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

New play uses song, dance and story to tell tale of 16th century slave rebellion leader

     The empty rehearsal room was quiet in late afternoon, a peaceful contrast to the hustle and bustle of buses, cars and people visible through the windows looking out on 125th Street, one of Harlem's busiest thoroughfares. Darrel Alejandro Holnes had come here to talk about his latest play, Bayano, which two weeks later would have its first public exposure in a workshop presentation upstairs at the National Black Theatre.

     It's been a two-year journey to get to this point, from first applying to NBT's I AM SOUL Playwrights Residency program, through acceptance and writing and rewriting the play. Using The Odyssey as inspiration, Holnes wanted to tell the story of Bayano, a 16th century enslaved African king who led the largest slave rebellion in Panama against the colonial Spanish.

     "He was the Harriet Tubman figure of Panama," Holnes says. "He was the greatest colonial liberator anywhere in Latin America."

     Throughout the creation of Bayano, as he has with his other work and his life, Holnes has been strengthened by his Catholic upbringing and the African spirituality that mingled with it in Panama. He wears a silver cross containing sand from Jerusalem, a gift from his mother, over his cream-colored sweater, an outward sign of his faith. This faith is needed now more than ever, he says, when he has trouble finding anything hopeful in the news.

     "Faith is ultimately where I find my optimism," he says. "It's helped me move forward through this process despite many setbacks."

     Born in Houston, Holnes was raised in a suburb seven minutes outside of Panama City. He returned to the United States at 17 in 2005 to attend Loyola University in New Orleans but never completed the first semester because Hurricane Katrina left the school under water. He transferred to the University of Houston, then went on to the University of Michigan for graduate school.

     It was his grandmother, "the spiritual center of our family," who influenced his faith formation. She moved to Panama from Costa Rica in the early 20th century.

     "The church gave her pride, place and a sense of community. So much of her life was shaped by her commitment of faith."

     But Holnes is also aware of the church's role in protecting the institution of slavery in Panama. Portraying this along with creating a theatrical drama of song, dance and story around Bayano's life was important. Holnes had first learned about Bayano in elementary school, but mostly it was in relationship to news of rebellions and slave escapes. He wanted to explore the history, spirituality and liberation of this man.

     "The story was well documents but never from his perspective or a black perspective. I've done my best to try to honor what his perspective was and give him a voice. It's the story of a great liberator and also tells the story of the struggle with faith."

     And he's worked to understand both sides of the church in colonial Panama.

     "The church's role in faith helped Africans get up in the morning but religion was also used to explain and use slavery."

     In addition to a solid body of work and awards, Holnes also has the distinction of being the first Panamanian-America to receive a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship -- in 2019 for his poetry -- and is one of only two artists of Panamanian descents to ever receive the honor. In addition to writing, he teaches at New York University and Medgar Evers College of the City University of New York.

     "In a lot of my plays the characters are always struggling with their faith," he says. "To believe is to ask questions. My characters are always asking questions about life and its responsibilities."

     While he still sees Catholicism "as part of my community" and worships at Sagrado Corazon de Jesus Catholic Church when he is in Panama, he now attends Middle Collegiate Church on Manhattan's Lower East Side because its practices of service are much closer to those those he experienced as a child.

     "I grew up with a community of Catholic churches that were incredibly active in social justice. I grew up thinking that being Catholic is volunteering in a soup kitchen. I felt the Catholic Church was to be a voice of the poor and needy. I feel the Catholic Church in the United States has a different dynamic. Middle Church is very activist-oriented and really lives by faith."

     Throughout the 45-minute interview, Holnes holds a hand-carved wooded staff with the head of an African man that he bought in Cuba.

     "It makes me feel close to this project. I think what it would be like to be someone enslaved. They take everything from you so you own nothing. You would want something of your own so you go out and make it."

     After Bayano's March 11 through 15 workshop presentation Holnes will work toward getting the show into a fully staged production, which he hopes will make people feel empowered.

     "What I admire about Bayano is that he really took his freedom into his own hands. We should be able to do even more. We can break from things that oppress us. I hope people will try hard to feel they can free themselves from anything they feel is holding them back."