Puerto Rican Theater and the Magic of Keeping Tradition Alive

Eric Dominique-Pérez in the play "Crusade in Wonderland: Rise of the Drumpf." (Photo via El Diario)

Eric Dominique-Pérez in the play “Crusade in Wonderland: Rise of the Drumpf” (Photo via El Diario)

Eric Dominique-Pérez was born on the Island of Enchantment, but he has lived most of his life in New York, where he grew up and where, for years, he has poured out his soul on stage.

Many people call Dominique-Pérez “El Gringuito” – “the little gringo” – after the title of his solo show. In it, he displayed his Caribbean roots and his immersion in New York’s culture. The actor exudes theater and, beyond his talent and discipline, the creator of Dead Jíbaros Productions says proudly that his acting is inspired by the Puerto Rican flavor running through his veins and his desire to use theater as a tool to raise social awareness.

“Theater helps us tackle issues like identity – feeling proud of keeping history alive – and what we try to do is make people experience with us what we are presenting, make them live their reality and, as spectators, go home with something to think about,” said Dominique-Pérez. He is currently working on a new project called “Crusade in Wonderland: Rise of the Drumpf,” directed by filmmaker Alejandro Marín.

“It is a satire about the clown show in which some politicians have turned this election. With our play, we want to show that in the end, no matter how much hatred they spew out or how much the bully wants to scare everyone, we are all the same,” said Dominique-Pérez, who will produce the play “Brave Lord, A Tribute to the Young Lords,” about the Puerto Rican activists who changed the face of New York in the 1960s and ’70s, in the fall or early next year.

Rosalba Rolón, artistic director of Pregones Theater and the Puerto Rican Traveling Theatre, is another remarkable figure in New York’s Boricua theater. She says that the evolution of the country’s theater has led to beautiful and high-quality work.

“A very specific aesthetic has developed which encompasses the whole of Puerto Rico’s cultural trajectory, one that we bring from the island and that we combine with the experience of our community that settled here. The art has been transformed with time but, first and foremost, our traditions persist in a deeply-rooted manner, only now through more far-reaching voices,” said Rolón.

The company’s artistic director, explained that the two organizations she represents merged and maintain their off-Broadway and Bronx theater spaces. She added that another upholding factor in Puerto Rican theater is young people.

“Theater is a great gift for new generations. Beyond entertainment, we are offering a space giving them the freedom to develop their own expression. We are giving new generations a suitcase full of cultural tools that they can rely on to combine the elements of yesterday, today and tomorrow,” said Rolón.

When she talks about what makes Puerto Rican theater so special and the essence of its unmistakable character, Rolón does not hesitate to say that it has to do with the flavors of two cultures coming together.

“From the beginning, we decided that, along with our plays, live music on stage would allow us to come up with a distinctly Puerto Rican movement that could be understood and communicated universally. The same goes for the urban soundscape of New York,” she added.

“The legacy is creating that braid to link Boricuas here and Boricuas over there, that the themes reflect our historical condition and that it unites the people who took a boat or a plane and left, or were born here, with the people on the island,” said Rolón.

Manuel Morán, executive director of Teatro SEA, located on the Lower East Side, agrees that while Puerto Ricans are constantly trying to keep traditions alive, living in New York makes theater acquire broader dimensions.

“When we stared out, we created our theater as reaffirmation, to preserve our language, our traditions and our individuality. It was a way to protest and to defend our culture. Nowadays, the culture is inviting us to be ourselves but also to create bicultural theater,” said the artist, who proudly added that SEA is the only Latino theater for children in New York.

Morán also believes that theater has the power to save youths from going down the wrong path, not just by helping those who perform but also by enlightening the audience.

“A play like the one we just closed sends a direct message. It portrays the life of six Latino high school kids and the decisions they made regarding their studies. We blend art with culture and everyday life,” he said, referring to SEA’s latest production, “Desertores” (“Dropouts”) which dealt with the topic of quitting school. Morán added that he sees a great future for Puerto Rican theater.

“Very simple: Latino and Puerto Rican theater gets stronger every day because the level of artistic quality has increased and continues to grow. The evolution is palpable in New York, and we are undoubtedly on the right track. Vamos pa’ lante (We’re moving forward).”

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