Corrections or additions?

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

1970s."

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

commissioning

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

of color.

When I ask Cruz if she really thinks writers need to be urged to

address

this issue, she replies, "I don’t know about need. It’s

instinctive

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

African-American

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

rehearsal

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

to him.

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

evening’s

work.

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

during

Black History month.

"I think it is important for them to keep their mission

clear,"

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

Wilson-Robert

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

out here."

"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

color,

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

Brooklyn

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

post-apocalyptic

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

degree

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

Company,

with whom she studied from 1984 to 1991. Cruz has recently been

commissioned

to write another in her series of Puerto Rican history plays for the

Joseph Papp/Public Theater. Married since 1984, Cruz lives in

Connecticut

with her daughter and husband, a communications editor for

Schlumberger.

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

includes

the world premiere of his play "Tod, The Boy, Tod," and as

director of Ntozake Shange’s "The Love Space Demands."

Included

in the cast of "Yellow Eyes" are Jack Landron, Virginia

Rambal,

Amarelys Perez, Pascale Armand, Dyron Holmes, and Elisa Bocanegra,

each undoubtedly finding theatrical wisdom in the eyes of Cruz and

Wilks.

— Simon Saltzman

Yellow Eyes, Crossroads Theater, 7 Livingston

Avenue,

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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