‘I’ve come a long way because of my father’s thinking and his telling me what I couldn’t be," says Linda Nieves-Powell. Overcoming negativity has only made this award-winning writer/producer work all the harder. In fact, she says that she’s now a workaholic to make up for the time "wasted" as a club-hopping high-school dropout and self-proclaimed "rebel."
Her father, who came to New York from Puerto Rico when he was 16, first working as a janitor, then making a career as a city bus driver and repairman, always harbored a dream to be in show business. Nieves-Powell remembers their small one-bedroom apartment on the East Side, packed with three kids, mom and dad, and members of his band, The Terrible Frankie Nieves – complete with "xylophone, piano, bongos, even a horn section, all in our living room." They rehearsed and cut an album of Latin-sounding music in English.
The album went nowhere. His frustrations surely prompted his words of discouragement to his daughter: "Don’t even bother."
Her play, "Yo Soy Latina!," developed over a number of years and first self-produced, opens at Crossroads Theater Friday, February 10, and runs through Sunday, February 19, under the direction of Ricardo Khan. The play tells the stories of six Latin women living in America, each from a different ethnic background. Nieves-Powell is exceedingly optimistic about this production. "It was a hit in the bare-bones Off-Off Broadway productions" that she personally mounted. "With this beautiful set, Rick’s direction, and this level of actors, it will be truly amazing."
As we talk in her office for Latino Flavored Productions in the home on Staten Island that she shares with her husband, their 6-year old son, and a dog, she speaks easily about her life story. That journey meanders from youngster in the tiny Manhattan apartment to a home in an all-white neighborhood in Long Beach, Long Island, to stabs at formal education, to meeting and marrying her husband, and becoming a mother. It includes along the way finding her voice as a writer,
taking the audacious step of producing her play herself, then moving into movie-making, and winning acclaim with her first attempt. It’s a dizzying saga. And each step guided by what she calls her "gut."Obviously, telling stories is her forte.
She takes special delight in telling how she met her husband, Tony Powell, whom she calls "brilliant." Growing up in East New York, Powell participated in a program called "A Better Chance," went to prep school in Connecticut, then to the University of Virginia. "All that education and he decided to be a comedian," says Nieves-Powell. "I always told my friends that you don’t go to a club to meet a husband. But I had a feeling that night. Something made me go." As so often in her life, her "gut feeling" served her well. At the Copa, she
saw this "very conservative" African-American guy trying to dance "nicely" with a girl who was "all over him." As he left the dance floor, obviously embarrassed, he said to Nieves-Powell, "Why don’t you save me?" An hour passed, he showed up again and they introduced themselves: "I’m a comedian." "I’m a writer." "I’m going to call you tomorrow." And he did. They talked for three hours during that first phone call. "I knew. This is the guy. My gut has been working for me every since I met Tony, and I do everything based on my intuition."
When their son, Matthew, was born, Tony felt he had to get a "real" job because he wanted Linda to stay home with their son. But this wasn’t too easy for her. "I’m a hustler. I can’t stand sitting in the house doing nothing." So she began doing some freelance writing for magazines and web sites while taking care of the baby.
"When I first came up with the idea for my play, "Yo Soy Latina!," my gut told me it was going to be huge." It began as a monologue. Having done some work with the Puerto Rican Traveling Theater, she was asked to perform her monologue at a barbecue party. Getting cold feet, she never made it to the party, but decided to post it online. The response from those who read it on the Internet was astounding and led to her decision to expand the piece by interviewing other Latin women who had been so moved by her words. The hardest part for her was
selecting what to use from the abundance of material from about 30 interviews with women of different ages, races, and cultures. "When I decided on six stories, I thought my brain would burst. I could see it clear as day."
She rose at 4 a.m. every morning and wrote for hours before her son
woke up. In one month on this regimen, she had written a first draft. Taking charge of her project, she called theaters until she found Manhattan Theatre Source, where she was able to put the piece up for free with a friend serving as director. "From the beginning, it has been successful. They didn’t have enough seats and had to turn people away."
Responding to critiques that it was "wonderful, but too long," she cut
30 minutes and mounted the revised piece at another Village arts center. Again the response was amazing. "Again my gut came into play. This success told me that I had to keep going. But it was frustrating. Here I was, a mother at home, and with no money. What am I going to do?"
She kept calling theaters. Finally, the Newyorcan Poets Cafe gave her play a venue. "Every single performance was sold out for 18 months." It was here that Crossroad’s Ricardo Kahn saw her play.
She says: "Money was so tight that if we got a parking ticket, it was a big deal." Then her husband lost his job. So, with her husband out of work, she put $25,000 on their credit card and produced the play herself Off-Broadway at the Pantheon Theater on 42nd Street. "When I’ve risked and faced the fear, I’ve been given so much in return." She made all her money back and a profit.
Never content to wait for the next move for "Yo Soy Latina," she tempered the waiting for "something to happen" by writing and producing a short film. She is a self-taught filmmaker, yet her first movie, "Mimi’s Portrait," was accepted into three film festivals. It chronicles her experience as a "Manhattan kid" transplanted to Long Beach, Long Island, where all the other children had blond hair/ blue eyes or red hair/green eyes. "I suffered so much for three years
As a teenager, she dropped out of high school and majored in the party and club scene. But she did get a GED and when she was 17 went to Pace University "to see what college was like," but soon dropped out. She also attended the College of Staten Island for a brief time. Then she told herself, "Finish something." And she did, graduating in 1991 with an associate’s degree in business from Kingboro College in Brooklyn. This certainly came in handy when she began to produce and market her work. Beginning in 2002, she has toured a college version of "Yo Soy
Latina!" nationwide, where it has been a profitable money-maker for her. Nieves-Powell’s parents are now retired and live in Florida, with one of their daughters living nearby. Her other sister took a cue from their dad, too, and is a singer.
When Ricardo Kahn called Nieves-Powell and suggested a workshop for "Yo Soy Latina!" she at first scoffed at the idea, as she felt she had gotten beyond that. But he was persistent. And after she checked him out online, she was appalled with herself for giving the runaround to this man with such impressive theater credits. When she met with him,she says, "It reminded me of that feeling of rightness when I met my husband. I knew something was happening."
Now that the play is in rehearsal under Kahn’s direction, she is sure that audiences will be moved by the piece. "I guarantee it!" Her gut is telling her, "This particular play has a little magic."
"My life feels like being on a cliff, overlooking a river, not knowing how to swim, but jumping in anyway. After you get there, worry about getting out. I seriously work like that. Every time I push myself to the edge, I love what winds up happening." She is already making another film and feels she has another play inside her about her family. Some day, she wants to make a full-length film.
As I left her home, she gave me a copy of "Yo Soy Latina!" She inscribed some advice for me: "Dare to dream."
Yo Soy Latina, Friday through Sunday, February 10 through 19, Crossroads Theater, 7 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. $40 to $55. 732-545-8100.