Zoetrope: Part 1, written and directed by Javier Antonio González, played at The Los Angeles Theatre Center October 16 through November 8, 2014, as part of Encuentro 2014. The story is both personal and political, with a love triangle set amid the turbulent struggle for Puerto Rican independence in 1951. The plot is a powerful drama of love, national identity, and human rights.
In addition to Spanish and English versions, Caborca Theatre presented a bilingual version, which is a valid option, given the subject matter and potential audiences. However, for me the nature of this particular version raises practical questions about effectively reaching an audience with a bilingual play.
The play opens with the impending marriage of a young couple in Lares, Puerto Rico. Shortly after the wedding, Severino (Marcos Toledo) leaves his bride Inés (Laura Butler Riviera) to look for work in Harlem, New York, where he becomes very ill and is cared for by his lover Susan (Veraalba Santa) until his death.
Scenes alternate between these two locales as family and friends communicate by mail, and the characters struggle with the implications of citizenship, military duty, the independence movement, and the birth of a son. In a discussion after the play, González shared that letters written by his grandparents were the inspiration for the plot, and that the actual letters were used in the performance.
Members of Caborca Theatre, now headquartered in Brooklyn, began working together at the University of Puerto Rico in 2002, and officially became a company in 2009. A self-described experimental theater group, they use multiple theatrical effects, including live-feed video and supertitles for translation. They are clearly an experienced and talented company.
For this play, the set (Jian Jung) never changes even though scenes and costumes do. Scene changes are indicated by who is speaking and the nature of the dialogue. Everything needed for the production is visible to the audience, including racks of clothing for onstage costume changes.
In an email interview González explained, “I am interested in empty playing spaces, where the necessary objects, like in Japanese Noh Theater, lie at the edge of the stage. The reason is purely aesthetic.” Additional furniture was positioned “to create a ‘backstage’ area that would also be evocative of the time.” A table, chairs, and a bed (the “wedding” bed) remain center stage and are central to scenes in both Harlem and Puerto Rico.
A videographer moves amid the actors and we see live close-ups on a screen. The stage manager (Brooke Bell) controls the lighting and supertitles from a table at the rear center of the stage, occasionally leaving the table to perform herself. One intriguing aspect of the staging is when a character who is not part of a scene hovers nearby (almost like a ghost or a spirit), bearing witness to the action on stage. This directoral choice serves as a reminder of powerful ties between Inés and Severino (and by extension expatriates and their homeland) even though they are are separated by hundreds of miles of ocean.
Inés and her sister Francisca (Tania Molina) have long conversations about what it means to be a woman. Francisca wears pants and bright make-up and muses that she may never get married or have children. When Severino’s sister Celeste (Yaremis Félix) discovers that she is pregnant, she bravely announces that she will be a single parent.
During Severino’s absence, Inés struggles with feelings of abandonment while she continues working as a teacher. Fearing that he does not want to return, she is reluctant to write to him about her own pregnancy. Eventually, we find out that it is Francisca who has been a conduit for informing Severino about the birth of his son.
In Harlem, Severino’s lover Susan has kept the letters secret from him, and her insecurity is both clear and painful. However much she may taunt Severino and say that she doesn’t care what he does, she recognizes that the pull of fatherhood is strong, and she worries that he may return to Puerto Rico after all.
Framing all of this personal turmoil are the demonstrations for Puerto Rican independence from the United States, and the arrest of the brilliant and charismatic revolutionary leader, Pedro Albizu Campos. As Inés, Francisca, and Celeste plan local demonstrations, they discuss whether or not Severino served in the US Army during World War II. Someone reports that Severino said he had never served in the US military because he was rejected for health reasons.
When Severino dies and his body is shipped back home, everyone finds out that he lied about his US military service—he had served in the US military. During his funeral at an Army cemetery on the island, a folded US flag is presented to Inés, his widow. In one of the play’s most touching scenes, Francisca and Celeste urge her to throw it away, to burn the symbol of the 20th century colonial power. Clutching it tightly, Inés refuses, crying, “It is all I have left of him.”
As little as we may think of Severino for abandoning his wife, and then his son, we glean an understanding of his conflicted existence at this moment of his funeral. His wife was better educated, and he was not even able to earn a living . Inés and others actively demonstrated for Puerto Rican independence, and he felt compelled to deny his earlier US military service.
Initial advertisements for Zoetrope: Part 1 indicated a choice between performances in English or Spanish, with corresponding supertitles. However, mid-festival the company decided to present a completely bilingual performance, with dialogue switching back and forth between the two languages and translations projected on the screen. At the post-show discussion, cast members said this decision was the result of feedback they had received throughout the Encuentro.
The staging of a bilingual performance is an obvious option in multiethnic cities such as Los Angeles or New York. However, the decision to present such a performance will always involve considering questions about accessibility, and expanding and diversifying an audience. In an email interview, González elaborated:
It [a bilingual performance] is more realistic, which helps considering that so many things about the show are not. I understand why this can limit our audience outreach, yet I have often seen theater in a foreign language and know that it can be a real powerful experience in and of itself. We do [perform] though, [our] other work fully in English, so again, this is all very specific to the nature of this work.
Fair enough—theater companies have the right to decide their own priorities. However, I found this particular bilingual version difficult to access. Zoetrope: Part 1 is a powerful play and it’s a shame that as an audience member I wasn’t sure of everything that I thought I heard or read.
For members of the audience who were monolingual, the rapid-fire delivery of the dialogue combined with switching from one language to another in mid-conversation proved difficult to follow.
As an English-speaker (with a little bit of Spanish), I would relax for a moment and watch the actors when the conversation was in English. Then there would be a few seconds delay before I realized that the actors had switched back to Spanish. I couldn’t move my eyes back to the screen fast enough. At times the performers were speaking so quickly that the supertitles didn’t stay on the screen long enough for me to read them.
Tracking the action required tremendous effort. If I wanted to understand the story, I had to keep my eyes on the screen and could not really take in the acting.
Earlier this year the South Coast Repertory Theater in southern California tackled this exact problem—how to do a fully bilingual play—with a different method. The company commissioned a play that would connect with the Latina/o community in Santa Ana, and the result was a multi-night run of The Long Road Today (written by José Cruz Gonzalez and directed by Armando Molina), a story about a tragic death that devastates two families. This play was a collaborative effort among community groups, and every bit of dialogue was delivered in both Spanish and English before very diverse audiences each night. While it sounds like a real opportunity for tedium, the staging and acting made it a night of theater “magic.” I hope that Caborca will continue to explore alternative delivery methods for Zoetrope: Part 1 that might better suit their bilingual aspirations.
Zoetrope: Part 1 opened my eyes to a part of this hemisphere that I knew very little about. Albizu was a leader for independence who was much feared by sections of the United States government and U.S. businesses operating in Puerto Rico. Unexpectedly the play shines a spotlight on the context of the U.S. response to the Cuban revolution eight years later. Given the dominant role of the United States in the world, Zoetrope: Part 1 presents a story of continued relevance.