Puerto Rico, Representation, and Activism in the Theater
Nelson Diaz-Marcano is a Puerto Rican playwright, screenwriter, and theater critic based in New York City. His mission is to create work in which different cultures are represented, and to raise awareness of their history. His play “Radical” won the Best Play award at the Downtown Urban Arts Festival in 2016, and over the past ten years, his plays have been selected for such festivals as Fresh Fruit Festival, Downtown Arts Festival, and Midtown International Theatre Festival.
I recently sat down with Nelson in our neighborhood of Astoria, Queens, to get his thoughts on playwriting, Latin American history, representation in theater and film, and the role of art in our society.
Aria Chiodo: How did you become involved in theater while studying film in college?
Nelson Diaz-Marcano: I started with acting, out of curiosity to learn the acting process for film. I took a class with Valerie Lantz-Gefroh, just for kicks, and she ended up driving me to be an actor, so little by little I started to become more involved in theater, through acting, and less in film. I’ve always been ambitious, and I always liked to do more than just one thing, so when I started acting I started looking into other parts of theater, and within a year I was running the undergrad theater department and I created a new play festival. After that, I got more interested in writing and fell in love with theater, but honestly, it’s taken me ten years to care about theater as much as I care about film. Ultimately, it was through writing that I got more involved. I love the intimate aspects of theater, and I wanted to tell more intimate stories.
AC: How has your Puerto Rican background and identity informed/influenced your work?
NDM: My dialogue, the way that I see storylines, the way that I view the arts, everything comes from being Puerto Rican. But I only realized it over the last three years. When I moved here, being a Puerto Rican was almost like a scarlet letter. Most people would look at me and say, “I don’t know if this guy can do art.” Now representation matters, but when I moved here representation was numb. It was harsh. So, the most important things that have happened to me in the last three years [are] my connection to my Puerto Rican heritage, and the fact that I just want to raise awareness. When I started, my Puerto Rican background informed my skills and style without me really realizing it, and now it’s literally what drives me to make people aware of my culture and the cultures around me. Now, my background basically takes over everything. In the last year, six of my eight plays have been about Puerto Rico.
AC: Your play “Radical” is about the 1973 coup in Chile, and “Revolt” is a historical play about Puerto Rico. What role does history play in your work?
NDM: The problem with history is that nobody explores it very much, you just know about it from what people tell you. My idea is to take parts of history that seem to have been forgotten or “whitewashed,” because ultimately a lot of these parts of history that I’m trying to tell about are parts that American culture has omitted. For instance, for “Radical,” I wanted people to know about the U.S. government’s involvement in the rise of Pinochet, and its role in bringing Pinochet, one of the worst dictators in South American history, to power. And “Revolt” is all about the U.S. takeover of Puerto Rico, and the first hundred years of the relationship between Puerto Rico and the U.S., and what the U.S. did to us. Most people don’t know Puerto Rican history—even I didn’t until I started digging into it because our books only teach us American history. The books don’t teach us Puerto Rican history after 1898. Our history books jump from 1898 to 1951, and there’s a reason for that. And that’s why I wrote “Revolt,” because I want people to be aware that not only are we American citizens but that we’ve had a rocky relationship with this country. And what’s happening with Hurricane Maria is not new. It’s the same story all over again. It’s been ethnic cleansing since 1898 and they still haven’t been able to do it, and they won’t be able to, but they’ll keep trying.
AC: You’ve also written plays about recent events. “The Diplomats” takes place the day before the 2016 U.S. election, and the one-act “Rabiosa” takes place in Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. How do you write about such fresh events that are so close to home? Is writing a way to work through these events?
NDM: Both of those plays were on a first draft when they got produced. “Rabiosa” I wrote in an hour, and “The Diplomats” took me three days. When something happens, and I have the urge to write, it just comes out. I’m going to say one of the most cliché, annoying things a writer can say: it just pours out of me, onto the page. There’s an urgency, and when I’m angry enough that I have something to say, before I go and scream at somebody, I just put it on the page. It’s a stress reliever. With “The Diplomats,” my fear was that people were starting to lose sight of what made them friends and what made them break as friends. People were always looking at the screens and not really discussing the more intimate aspects of the problem. With “Rabiosa,” I wanted to experiment with magical realism, and we had one week to put a show together [for the Pa’ Puerto Rico fundraiser event], so I told one of the producers, Rebecca Aparicio, that I would write a one-woman show, something easier to produce. Funnily enough, so many people loved it! It’s been published and everything!
AC: Are you going to work more on “Rabiosa?”
NDM: I don’t know if I’m going to do more work on it, but the director, Victoria Collado, and I briefly talked about the possibility of turning it into a larger project.
AC: You’ve also written theater reviews and interviews for the blog Manhattan with a Twist. Your recent interviews have focused on representation in theater. What made you want to explore this topic?
NDM: Everything. I don’t want kids to grow up the way that we grew up—we only had one or two people to look up to, who were “making it.” I think about it a lot in the sense of how black people in the sixties and seventies had O.J. Simpson. That was their biggest representation. And when he was asked about how he felt as a black American by his friends (and I’m paraphrasing) he presumably said, I’m not black, I’m O. J.” He literally took his representation out of the equation and, with his words, let people know you shouldn’t be proud of who you are—to just be your name, not your race. I don’t want that. And I don’t want people to grow up thinking they’re stuck in their community, that there’s no place for them—no place for them in art, no place for them on Broadway or Hollywood or anywhere. No, I want them to know that they are as much a part of the American experience as the white people are. All of us, Native Americans, black people, Asians, all of us need to have that representation out there and we need to fight for it, because they will literally take us out to forge their supremacy. What we need to do is always find a way to show people why representation matters, which was why I chose to do those interviews because I wanted to showcase people who are working, who might not be famous, but are working hard at it right now, and are making a living at it, and are being respected because of it. You don’t need to be on top to do what you want, it’s okay. You are welcome here, everyone is welcome. That’s the message I want to put out there.
AC: Have you experienced or noticed positive change in the theater world in terms of representation? How does theater compare to film and TV?
NDM: Yes, people are fighting. It hasn’t changed much, but people are fighting. Both film and theater are awful industries. I love them both, but they’re both awful.
AC: Have either of them gotten better?
NDM: No, they haven’t gotten better. OK, maybe slightly, but not because they want it. There are still Evitas being played by white people, there are still Marias being played by white girls like Natalie Wood. People talk about Mickey Rooney playing an Asian character in "Breakfast at Tiffany’s" like that doesn’t happen nowadays, but it does—Emma Stone just played some Hawaiian woman in "Aloha" a couple years ago so that hasn’t changed. I see some change because now people are making it obvious. I see a change because "Mulan" [the new live-action Disney movie] cast a Chinese actress to play the part instead of a white actress. People have found their voices and started fighting, and the one thing we have is that we’re louder, so you will listen. And I think that is the difference: before we asked permission, now we demand. So, things are getting better, but not because [the industry] wants it to get better, but because we have made it happen. And I think that representation matters because we need to understand our power.
AC: What do you think about the relationship between art and activism?
NDM: I will answer in Akira Kurosawa’s words, because it’s what I’ve based my whole life on, this line: “the role of an artist is to not look away.” You can never look away. If art is entertainment, then you’re doing it wrong. Art should entertain, but if it doesn’t have a message behind it, what’s the point of it? You’re just making cash? Then you’re part of the system that you didn’t want to become part of. We all want to make money, but ultimately, we all have to leave something, a legacy; we have to leave something to learn, because how else do people learn history? How do people know about history besides the people who wrote it? The art that came from civilizations, that we stole like little kids in a candy store. Our history is mostly learned through art. And every year you hear about arts being defunded, and art being taken away. A lot of people don’t have access to art for a reason. Because they learn through entertainment, they learn through books, and if they start getting entertainment with a message, guess what? If they start watching less [Tyler Perry’s] "Madea" movies, and more movies like "Mudbound," they will realize, “Oh wait, there’s a problem here.” But instead they have "Madea," which has three crude jokes and a black man dressed as woman, and people are like, “Hey it’s funny!” It’s still funny to some people in 2017, and that shows how little we’ve grown. So, I think the connection between art and activism is essential for a society and culture to exist beyond its years.
AC: What are you working on now?
NDM: I’m working on three new short plays for my Hurricane Anthology about the Puerto Rican struggle with Maria: a poem-play, let’s say Latino iambic pentameter, called “I Saw Jesus in Toa Alta;” a play called “Paper Towels,” which, take a guess; and another called “Mami’s House” that’s more about nostalgia. All of them have some magical realism to them, because I wanted something of our culture in them and I want to explore [that style]. I’m also writing a play called “The Caribbean Connection,” which I have a first draft of. It’s about the gay diaspora and the LGBTQ community. Within Hispanic culture, the LGBTQ community is very different, and there are still a lot of problems and a lot of bigotry against it, so I’m exploring the love between a Puerto Rican man and a Dominican man. I’m also working on a short film with Matthew Willings, and I wrote the treatment of a documentary about Puerto Rico, which they were planning to film last I heard. Those are the most immediate. I’m also trying to do street poetry. That’s my new challenge!