Jack Agüeros, the activist, poet, playwright and former director of EL MUSEO DEL BARRIO is being honored this month at the famed Medicine Show Ensemble Theatre with the presentation of four of his seldom seen plays. The production is directed by Oliver Conant and opens October 5th with 5 shows a week for 4 weeks. The play runs Wednesdays through Saturdays at 7:30pm, Saturday matinees are at 3pm.
A champion of the Puerto Rican and Latino people of New York City, he was a versatile and multi-talented writer who is somewhat lost to many younger Latinos. The company presented his work earlier this year at El Museo Del Barrio and is now embarking in a new, full-scale production of these plays in an effort to draw attention to Mr. Agüeros in time for Hispanic Heritage Month.
Agüeros was born in East Harlem and was a New York based writer and activist. He died back in 2014 at the age of 79 at his home in Manhattan due to complications with Alzheimer’s disease.
The four plays in 4 by Jack are:
Awoke One, a surreal reimagining of the Passion of Christ, He Can't Even Read Spanish, set in early seventies New York City about a bodega owner trying to take care of business at a time of heightened Puerto Rican militancy, Ye Tragical Historie of Doctor Pedro Albizu Campos, a blast of truth telling fire from Puerto Rico's great nationalist leader, and Notary Sojac, a wild comic vision of homeless people, a depressed beat cop and visiting Gods from Greek mythology in Hell's Kitchen.
Awoke One is part of a cycle Agueros called "auto-sacramental." The term refers to a very old kind of religious and allegorical drama, akin to medieval mystery plays, that originated in Spain. Sanctioned by the church, they were performed with much pageantry on holy days in cities and towns, bringing the Passion of Christ or the meaning of the Eucharist directly to the populace. Two of Spain's greatest Golden Age playwrights, Lope de Vega and Calderon, contributed to the genre, deepening it with added layers of meaning and introducing elements of ancient mythology. So too Agueros, who includes a kind of Greek chorus, and embeds an allegorical treatment of Christ's teaching, trial and crucifixion--with Christ as "Him" and Pontius Pilate as the "Referee"--in language that is at once abstract and gorgeous, with inspirations as varied as Kafka and the surrealist paintings of Rene Magritte.
HE CAN'T EVEN READ SPANISH
He Can't Even Read Spanish was originally a television play broadcast on NBC in 1971, when Agueros' organizing work was making him into an acknowledged spokesman for the Puerto Rican diaspora in New York City. Presented for the first time as a stage play, it tells the story of Don Luis Rivera, abodeguerro, or bodega owner, his older son Samuel's girlfriend Laura, who represents an aspirational accommodation to the American way, his variously needy and loyal customers, and a plainclothes detective on the take. Luis is a first generation immigrant from Puerto Rico whose ideals of hard work, of "dignidad" more precious than "dollares" will be sorely tried in the course of the play. Laura, the young law student, wants to know why he doesn't open a supermarket. He is lectured by his restive younger son Carlos, whose head is turned by the rhetoric and militancy of the Young Lords, a revolutionary group Agueros calls, with gentle irony, the "Young People's Party." Their occupation of a public library--because it does not contain any books about Puerto Rican history and culture--fills Luis with both fear for his son's safety and a grudging pride, as well as a dawning sense of the constraints of the life he has made in America.
YE TRAGICAL HISTORIE OF DOCTOR PEDRO ALBIZU CAMPOS
The play that follows, Ye Tragical Historie of Doctor Pedro Albizu Campos, comes as if in answer to the protest of the young revolutionaries occupying the library: Agueros has the great nationalist leader, "an elegant, eloquent man, who speaks with the fire of truth" deliver a corruscating history lesson about the colonialism and imperialism that shaped Peurto Rico and the waves of resistance to foreign domination, from the 1868 Grito de Lares (Lares rebellion) against Spanish rule to the formation and armed struggle of Campos' own Nationalist, pro-Independence party against the United States. Campos was imprisoned for his beliefs for decades, refusing all pardons. Agueros' play is set in a prison--or is it? The Typist, "pronouncing every Spanish word incorrectly," a snarling, contemptuous bureaucrat busy with a victor's version of the history of the man in his charge, could be a figment, a bad dream, and the whole play, from the lyrical origin myth of its opening to Campos' anguished, repeated "I have never been absent from Puerto Rico" could be taking place inside the brilliant, tormented mind of the great nationalist leader, as he contemplates the great wave of decolonizations occurring in his lifetime and asks "why not Puerto Rico?"
Notary Sojac combines fantasy and harsh New York street reality. It takes place in an encampment of homeless people on 50th Street west of 11th Avenue, just a couple of blocks from Medicine Show's theatre, in the early 1970s. The title and the name of one character refer to a comic strip of the 1940s and 50s, also called Notary Sojac, and its cartoon personage Smokey Stover. Smokey, a woman in Agüeros' play, and a man known as Einstein because of his math skills, are joined by Hermes, who is either homeless bicycle messenger or a Greek god (Hades also makes an appearance). The depressed beat cop Murph completes the quartet. The plot concerns a mysterious silver backpack Hermes has appropriated from some gangsters, and the gangsters' and Hades' attempts to get it back. But the real burden of the play is the discovery of the deep humanity and great love among the down and out – a paean to the soul of goodness Jack Agüeros found everywhere in New York City.
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