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Author: Simon Saltzman. Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on February
2, 2000. All rights reserved.
Journey of `Yellow Eyes’ at Crossroads
The great grandfather’s eyes seemed like pieces of
gold to the young girl who saw wisdom when she looked into them."
Playwright Migdalia Cruz is talking about Isabel, a 13-year-old Puerto
Rican girl, and the relationship she has with her 112-year-old great
grandfather. Both are protagonists of her play "Yellow Eyes,"
now having its world premiere at Crossroads Theater Company. "The
play is about two journeys," she continues. "One for the girl,
who learns about the legacy of her great grandfather, the other, the
journey of the great grandfather, from his life as an African slave
in Puerto Rico in the 1860s to his life in the Bronx in the
Inspired by the life of her own great grandfather, who actually lived
to be 112 years old, "Yellow Eyes" is about the relationship
of two people whose lives together span a century. Although Cruz,
the author of more than 30 plays, musicals, and operas produced in
the United States and abroad, says that the play is more fictional
than biographical, she draws many parallels between her family and
the family of her play.
Cruz says her play concerns the experiences of two people, one very
young and one very old, set in the time following the civil rights
movement, a time when the Puerto Rican community was being torn apart
on issues of race. Cruz knows this as a time when many people were
examining differences in the races. "It becomes a volatile time
for Isabel, who is a mixture of African, Spanish and Indian, as are
most Puerto Ricans," she says. "In the play, Isabel learns
of her heritage from her great grandfather and he learns to stay young
and maintain hope."
"Yellow Eyes," which was presented in a one-act version last
season as part of Crossroads’ 10th annual Genesis Festival of new
works, is the first play to come out of a new cross-cultural
project by the Tony Award-winning theater company.
"It’s wonderful for me to feel included," says Cruz, speaking
of the program that has been set up to develop work that addresses
relationships between the African-American community and other people
When I ask Cruz if she really thinks writers need to be urged to
this issue, she replies, "I don’t know about need. It’s
in all my work. Afro-Puerto Ricans are a part of my world. But I hope
it does encourage writers of color to explore their roots with more
depth." What is different about the Crossroads project, as Cruz
sees it, is that it is the first time it is being initiated by an
African-American theater. "My play is another piece of the
diaspora," she says.
As fate would have it, Cruz’s play was a last-minute choice for the
season, when the play originally chosen for the slot was canceled.
Cruz was six months pregnant when she got a call from Crossroads and
told about the Genesis Festival and the goal of finding writers with
plays that explored cross-cultural roots. "Can you write a play
in about a month?" the organizers asked Cruz. She would know what
to answer: "Of course. I already have my mind on family issues
and my roots." Her daughter, Antonia Bess, is now seven months
old, and is with her mother in New Brunswick during the hectic
period. To punctuate how the question of roots stays foremost on her
mind, Cruz tells me that Antonia was the name of her great grandmother
and Bess was the name of her husband’s great aunt.
Every year for the past several years, Cruz has been writing for the
Latino Chicago Theater Company. "And every year we do a Day of
the Dead ceremony where we create altars for our dead family members.
In the past few years I have been making one for my great grandfather.
Part of my altar has always been words, an essay, a short story."
One of these was a one page "monologue/essay" about Cruz’s
great grandfather called "Yellow Eyes," published in 1989
in a collection called "Telling Tales." Since then Cruz says
she was anxious to write about him more and explore her connection
Until that time Cruz had never submitted a play to Crossroads. "I
thought they only produced African-American writers," she says.
For the Genesis Festival, "Yellow Eyes" was a one-act play,
22 pages long. Now at 95 pages, "Yellow Eyes" is a full
Making a success of African-American theater has been a long hard
struggle, even for the Tony Award-winning Crossroads Theater Company.
I asked Cruz if she had any thoughts on Crossroads’ attempt to expand
its boundaries to include other playwrights of color, especially
Black History month.
"I think it is important for them to keep their mission
she replies, "because theaters devoted to artists of color are
so rare. I know of so many Latino theaters that have closed."
We discuss whether Crossroads should open its theater
to everybody. "Keeping Crossroads alive is the most important
mission, because there are so many African-American writers, and so
few venues," Cruz says, as we discuss the recent turmoil over
Crossroads’ precarious financial stability.
A digression allows Cruz to volunteer an opinion on the August
Brustein debate, which included diverse and incendiary comments and
articles (from each) regarding black versus white theater. "It
was ridiculous," she says. "It reduced the whole world to
black and white. Excuse me, but there are Puerto Ricans and others
"How disappointing it is when as a writer you are only thought
of because of your color, a woman `New Yor-ican’ from the Bronx,"
she continues. On the other hand, Cruz says that because there is
racism everywhere and she will be judged by her ethnicity, she will
take whatever opportunity comes her way.
Characterizing her own style of writing as "poetic realism,"
Cruz says that while her main mission is writing about people of
people who haven’t always had a voice, she has written about others,
including the Mexican intellectual and artist Frida Kahlo. Cruz wrote
the libretto for the opera "Frida: The Story of Frida Kahlo,"
produced by the Houston Grand Opera and presented there, at the
Academy of Music, and other large venues.
Cruz describes "Miriam’s Flowers" as her first "crossover
play," that is the first production of her work by a non-Latino
theater. It was performed in 1990 at Playwrights Horizons, "a
white theater." A 1997 production of "Fur," a
re-telling of the story of "Beauty and Beast" was produced
by Chicago’s Steppenwolf Studio and continued her crossover career.
Born and raised in the Bronx, Cruz graduated in 1980 from Lake Erie
College in Ohio with a BFA in playwriting, received her master’s
from Columbia University in 1984, and has since taught at New York
University, University of Iowa, and Princeton. Cruz has high praise
for her former teacher and mentor, Cuban-born playwright Maria Irene
Fornes, the current playwright-in-residence at Signature Theater
with whom she studied from 1984 to 1991. Cruz has recently been
to write another in her series of Puerto Rican history plays for the
Joseph Papp/Public Theater. Married since 1984, Cruz lives in
with her daughter and husband, a communications editor for
Unlike many writers of color and talent, Cruz can boast that since
she began writing she has had over 50 professional productions of
her plays produced nationally and internationally.
Cruz’s director of choice for "Yellow Eyes" is Talvin Wilks,
with whom she co-wrote a piece, "Occasional Grace," for En
Garde Arts Theater in 1989. Wilks’ association with Crossroads
the world premiere of his play "Tod, The Boy, Tod," and as
director of Ntozake Shange’s "The Love Space Demands."
in the cast of "Yellow Eyes" are Jack Landron, Virginia
Amarelys Perez, Pascale Armand, Dyron Holmes, and Elisa Bocanegra,
each undoubtedly finding theatrical wisdom in the eyes of Cruz and
— Simon Saltzman
New Brunswick, 732-249-5560. Opening night for the world premiere
that plays through February 27. $28 to $40. Thursday, February
3, 8 p.m.
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