Theater as activism is not a modern invention, nor is the need for pro-active civic engagement to sustain it.
In 425 B.C. when Athenian playwright, Aristophanes, called out the bumbling power plays of magistrates and war mongers in his play, Archarians, he was essentially the (documented) founder of activist theater.
The first documented public poet, also known as the world’s first author, Enheduanna, Mespotamian Priestess and Princess, 2285-2250 B.C.E., used her poetry and hymns to unify the original Sumerians and the new Akkadians following a Sumerian revolt that resulted in her overthrow. To date, she remains mostly unknown, except for the works of scholars, some of whom have dubbed her “the Sumerian Shakespeare.”
It is important to note the probability that there were others doing the work thousands of years ago through oral tradition or other forms of interdisciplinary and inter-textual arts. History is too often a black hole where caste, privilege, gender and melanin often determined who will be among the disappeared. This is no different in U.S. theater. Yes, there is a glacially paced movement towards inclusion and diversity that will speed up when decolonized cultural competence becomes a DE&I requirement of funders, administrators and artistic directors. Essential and systemic diversity, equity and inclusion arise from the dismantling of white patriarchal supremacism, through anti-racist policy, and when DE&I are expectations of conscience and action.
In the early 1970s after high school graduation, I looked for a theatre agent and found one – at an open call for a Broadway show. I’ve always been big on longshots; sometimes growing up in economic distress and trauma can lead one to believe in miracles. That belief hasn’t failed me yet and it mostly involves a little faith, a lot of sweat and the knowing that we do nothing alone.
This very encouraging agent, who happened to be a woman in a male-dominated industry, told me I was beautiful (in those days that seemed to be the primary success requisite where women were concerned). She assessed my face by tracing it with her fingers. “Symmetrical features, that youthful glow, those killer eyes – I can get you some Maybelline work.” She had “connections.” My killer eyes let her know that modeling was not what I was looking for, but I needed the money, so I smiled, nodded, and gave awkward thanks, while thinking about washing my face. “You can sing, move, great smile, nice body – even your nose is good. A perfect ingénue. I can get you lots of work, but you’ll have to do one thing.” I thought she would tell me to get laminate veneers. “Do what?” She looked at me like I was an idiot. “Pass.” I was clueless. “Pass? What’s pass?” “Pass for white. You’ll have to change your name. And pass for a white girl.”
Vote.Election Day is Tuesday, November 8.
Vote Vote Vote.
She said this as if it was the most natural and acceptable thing to do and that somehow I should have known that and already done it. “Rita Hayworth did it.” A panorama of Hayworth images went through my cinema-addicted brain. “But she…I don’t…no. I won’t do it. I’d rather be dead than deny being my father’s daughter, or being who I am.” I walked away angry, humiliated and discouraged. Maybe Emilio’s was hiring? I had played the role of waitress (yesterday’s word) enough times to be assured the part. Selling out wasn’t for me. I was in love with a Boricua who turned himself into an Italian. That love didn’t last. Neither did anything close to my being part of mainstream U.S. theater. Besides, I had always found the Beast more compelling than the Beauty.
The word ingénue was offensive enough. Another word for a virginal pendeja. I’ve always preferred to study and write plays about history’s outliers and champions of our unified agency, such as Puerto Rican labor leader, womanist, journalist and entrepreneur, Luisa Capetillo, and Afro-Boricua Bibliophile/Archivist/Protector of Black History, Arturo Alfronso Schomburg, in whose body, life and work, my play, ERASED (a history based, poetic imagining of Schomburg’s life) honors Pan-African unity among global cultures, and nurtures an enduring understanding of Blackness beyond the term, African-American.
Following the agent’s fingering of my face, I began to rent lofts downtown (betting on ticket sales), performed at coffee houses, bars, prisons, hospitals, and created my own solo shows, developing an underground following of folks who were, for the most part, not average theater- goers, but were attracted to the absurdist rawness and politics of my work. Absurdist political theatre made the most sense to me. My monologue series work, A Night on Meat Street, was hosted by now blues legend, Bobby Radcliffe, and a featured character was a “junkie with a Ph.D” based on one of my relatives. I’d never heard of Whoopie Goldberg in those days, and yet at around the same time we were wearing slips on our heads, pretending we were “the girl with the beautiful long blonde hair.” There are so many stories we all capture. I have no doubt that had Whoopie and I found each other in those days, we would have had some outrageous belly laughs and collaborations.
I was, then and now, attracted to other outliers as lead characters in my work, and as artists. Queer activist artists were among my inspirations, such as Jeffrey Weiss, (who died this past September at the age of 82) playwright, performer and impresario in his East Village storefront theater, where you were unapologetically greeted in multiple languages, and fed black bread (“my mother baked it”) and olives during intermission. The prolific and multi-faceted Charles Ludlum, playwright, actor, director and founder of the Ridiculous Theatrical Company, on Sheridan Square in 1967, where Ludlam staged several of his plays. Prior to that, Ludlam presented wildly irreverent Punch and Judy puppetry, at the Evergreen Theater, on East 11th Street. He was all raw nerve and verve.
Then there were all of the wondrous performances at the 67-seat Thirteenth Street Repertory Theater, in NYC’s West Village, founded by the late Edith O’Hara in 1972. Among the regulars at the theater, was TV personality, Brother Theodore, who called his spontaneous and rambling monologues “stand up tragedy.” O’Hara died at the age of 103, in October, 2020. A great loss to NYC theater, a venue that hosted the Brother Theodores of our boroughs, and helped launch countless careers, which included the likes of actor Richard Dreyfus and playwright, Israel Horowitz and where his play Line also lived a long life.
That small theater might not have been infused with radicalism and diversity, but it was radical in its welcome, eclecticism, warmth, camp, and ticket prices. When I needed that special brand of intimacy that happens in a small space among strangers sharing laughs, nods, delight and eyerolls, I headed for that candybox of a theater. It took all my will not to wear pajamas, for all of its coziness.
A glittering outlier, poet and performer, Emilie Glen, in her mermaid hair and style, rode her bike all over Greenwich Village, reciting poems with titles like “Twat Shot” at countless open mic venues, and performing in campy versions of plays like Hansel and Gretel at the East Village Victory Theater, where the sets were downscale but the doors open to those of us who at times had our own “Waiting for Guffman” moments.
Glen was the matriarch of poetry salons, and opened her fifth floor walk-up at 77 Barrow Street, in the West Village, to strangers via the free events pages of the Village Voice. I’d met her when she first held them in her lesser-known apartment venue at 77 Columbia Street on the Lower East Side, (shortly before it was re-named Loisaida, by Boricua poet, playwright, educator and community activist, Bimbo Rivas, another prolific outlier.)
Everything about Emilie was a glorious theater feast of Southern-Belle daintiness, backroom bawdiness, old Hollywood fragrances, down-home generosity, Violets candy and solo parades in satiny, flouncy mini-skirts, and with her shimmering flats gripping the pedals of her happy bicycle. Emilie booked my first featured poet reading at a Gay men’s theater, Dramatis Personae on West 14th Street. My first public audience: naked men in fuchsia fishing nets dressed for their evening performance. They gifted me an electric and life-giving connection between audience and performer. It didn’t get more intimate than their hoots and howls and finger snaps.
The first time I was called a “fag hag” happened while out walking with my protective Christopher Street pack, on our way to Julius (the bar, not the emperor). I was momentarily stunned. Next, I curtsied, then flashed. “Thank you, and proud of it!” We kept on our way, hysterical with laughter, inventing new ways to swear.
I continued to write performance poems and there were featured readings for me at every West Village cafe and open mic venue that existed, from Cafe Wha? to the former speakeasy, Chumley’s, to the Cedar Tavern, and more. When one of my solo shows was canceled at the Village Gate for a sudden “private party” I took the audience with me to Washington Square Park and performed it there; the weather and vibe were on my side.
Poet and social critic, Barbara A. Holland, invited me to perform at her open mic nights on MacDougal Street at Speakeasy, where poets who read from napkins were upstaged by the large and full fish tank. Holland greeted her guests with cigarette in hand and a deadpan, “Good evening, Ladies, Gentlemen and Fish.”
Holland walked around her West Village neighborhood in a “house” dress and lit cigarette with gravity-defying ashes, as her slippers dragged across the concrete. She was often mistaken for homeless and “nuts”; she was neither, and in fact, like Emilie Glen, she was at the top of the list of the most widely published unknown poets in the U.S.
I am forever grateful to culture protector, poet, editor and publisher of Poets Press, Brett Rutherford, for gathering and publishing the works of Glen and Holland, (those extraordinary, theatrical, inventive, singular women,) of lives lived for writing, performance and championing other outlier creatives. My living influences and champions were mostly invisible to the world, like poet Kenyon Gordon, always in costume, and inimitable in manner and speech. No one could tip a straw boater like him. My muses are the ones who walked around with nerves exposed, giving not one damn of what anyone thought of them. Holland once sent me a letter in which she said, “I would crawl through a NYC sewer to watch you perform,” a significant moment, a turning point, where I decided to keep on going, making and breaking whatever theater was for me in that moment. I defined it. It never defined me.
I was, and am documented as a part of the Nuyorican Literary Vanguard. I did however, have a complicated relationship with the Nuyorican Café male founders on East 6th Street. The movement and the venue are understood by some as interchangable. They aren’t. Living across from that original location, I learned about and eventually met influential and supportive future mentors, outside of their doors. They included currently active poets and dear friends, José Angel Figueroa and Sandra Maria Esteves, and the late Pedro Pietri and Louis Reyes Rivera: all of them poets, who were also activist theater-makers and playwrights. Esteves continues to be, as well, a visual artist documenting and celebrating Afro-Boricua cultural heritage, writing, and inspiring future generations. Figueroa continues to perform and publish with his enduring youthful vitality. As a Boricua College professor, he builds intentional and reciprocal pathways between generations. The Café itself, was re-located to East 3rd Street, and has recently been placed in the very capable and creative leadership of Spoken Word poet, Caridad de la Luz, aka, La Bruja.
Dedicated, albeit marginalized, arts activists, who were highly-accomplished and prolific iconoclasts made art and served as unsung Muses to many. Each of them, unknowingly, taught me that the core of liberation is not only in being your authentic self, but in giving others the tools to forge true identities and essential selves.
The core of liberation is not only in being your authentic self, but in giving others the tools to forge true identities and essential selves.
Inspired, I committed to the inter-textual and interdisciplinary fusion of energy for resistance into all my work. My arts activism journey included becoming the Director of Religious Education at Holy Name School on NYC’s Upper West Side, in the early ‘80s, where I could enter classrooms dressed as a fairy God elephant, and teach 650 children that they were healers, priests and priestesses and could conjure their own prayers and sacred rituals, establish their own unique relationship with the Divine, while learning sacred meanings of what it means to be in “communion” and “community.” The Baltimore Catechism was not in my curriculum.
My resolution to plow through the pre-determined contours of “American Theater” was also fueled by visionary Indigenous women, like Spiderwoman Theater, founded in 1976 at Washington Square Methodist Church. The troupe intersected their traditional forms with Western theater, taking on topics like gender bias, cultural stereotypes, and economic oppression. They were fearless feminists, highly regarded for their political and artistic prowess and daring throughout the U.S. and Europe.
The New York City boroughs were teeming with dreamers raised on notions that if you weren’t monetarily compensated for your art, then you were not a “professional,” nor an artist. This absurdly capitalist notion has done untold harm to many creative souls, leaving in its wake the deadliness of too many dreams deferred. Unless you were born into money or had a handle on the politics and access to private and public funds, the journey was a grueling one on either side. Many working artists like myself, lived on the economic margins, determined to create work that both challenged and assisted in re-imagining a theater that embraced the greater world. It was a time of questions. We saw the limitations not only in casting, but the inherent insults in most casting calls. What, do you mean by “shapely body” “beautiful” “handsome and built?” “Color blind?” Why wouldn’t you want to see me?” Who gets funded/cast/lauded/ or not, and why? Must I become a product and forgo the prismatic truths of my full humanity? Still urgent questions.
In the 1966 Mayoral election of New York City, the voters in this most progressive of cities, chose a forward thinking arts ally, Republican attorney, John V. Lindsay, over the Democrat, Abraham D. Beame and the rabidly Conservative candidate, William F. Buckley, Jr.
The evolution of Lindsay’s Mayoral Administration, between 1966 and 1963, helped to fund, give rise to, as well as support, pre-existing small and exciting theatres and projects, with support for BIPOC, LGBTQIA+ and women-led initiatives. Voters became the beneficiaries of this individual and collective voice-raising. The city was in a quagmire of economic decline, rising violence and racial hatred, and the voters took a stand; they were tired of business as usual. New Yorkers were savvy and saw in John V. Lindsay someone who was smart enough to recognize that arts were good for residents and for business. His administration sponsored the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, which was the focus of the 2021 documentary music film, Summer of Soul. Lindsay was also an early supporter of national health and Education programs and was instrumental in helping to found the National Foundation for the Arts and Humanities. A Republican, who later became a Democrat, he was always at odds with the conservatism of his own party.
Opportunities began to ripple beyond the usual suspects, to artists and audiences that had been historically undermined, underfunded and marginalized by the dominating white supremacist policies and proclivities of the so-called, “American Theater.” I personally benefitted and was trained and inspired by organizations and venues that had BIPOC personnel and revenue to keep the doors open.
While living in the infancy of systemic change in the arts, not everyone shared information or access beyond their own cliques. However, the truth remains, that those who influenced Lindsay’s life, his choices and principles along with those who elected him, and worked in confluence with him, are among the reasons change in “American Theater” began to take root and continues to grow.
Other champions like Joseph Papp, brought magnificent and free works to The People in Central Park at the Delacorte Theater. It was my first live experience of the gifted Puerto Rican actor, Raúl Julia, who played Mac the Knife in Threepenny Opera. That wondrous experience set my hair on fire. Julia stood on the shoulders of his mentor, Puerto Rican actors and activists. The late, Miriam Colón, founded the Puerto Rican Traveling Theater (PRTT), where Julia received training. Built in a firehouse on West 47th Street, it is now joined with Pregones Theater, and both continue successfully with the Pregones co-founder and Artistic Director, Rosalba Rolón at the helm. Colón and Crystal Field, co-founder of Theater for the New City (TNC), took mobile theater to the street of the city’s most economically-oppressed communities. Both theaters continue to serve and inspire the city and her visitors.
I am once again being mentored, decades later, by my playwriting teacher from Joseph Papp Hispanic Playwrights’ Unit, playwright, author and scholar, Crispin Larangeira, who recently encouraged me to apply for a major fellowship, as he sends me commentary and reflections on my recently published memoir, Mi’ja, (Heliotrope Books, NYC) while I prepare to adapt a solo show of the book and write the sequel. Larangeira showed me the ropes of navigating through life on poverty’s budget, such as how to get into federally-funded museums for a dime, if that was all I could afford. Knowing how to break the code of Suggested Donation made a huge difference in the arts I was able to experience. I saved a lot on carfare too – walking everywhere. The best gym in NYC is still the city itself.
My work has had, and continues to have, a positive ripple effect among diverse populations and generations. I have un-erased myself with the support of others. Our outlier bellies are full enough, and our hearts are overflowing. We carry on the work of civic engagement, activism, and building leaders of conscience, and creative, critical thinking.
This is urgent and necessary work that belongs to all of us, especially we who have the right and privilege to vote. ACTivism is for all. Where would I and thousands of others be if New Yorkers had not stepped up to send a message with their vote? What might have happened to all of the unknown, erased, and other creative outliers like myself? What happened to those who chose to live inside the Master’s house? Hunger, mouths to feed and unpaid bills are great temptations of the will, and assassins of character.
We are now in a political time of great global urgency. Every single one of us must take a position and choose a side. It is too obvious to express in detail; it is as simple as it is complex: Democracy or Totalitarianism? Love or Hate? Violence or Peace? Life or Death? Existence or Extinction? In this election, we choose one of each of these with our votes.
I wish I were a Super Shero with the powers to heal the planet, its people, and end all wars. But I’m not. I am much closer to the grave than to the cradle. One thing I know I can do, that does matter, even if only because it is a public documentation of what I want and believe in: VOTE. I vote in gratitude for all who struggled and died so that I could. I vote for all who were excluded from the struggle and built their own coalitions, and for those who have been robbed of their right and rite to vote. I shall vote.
No matter the long shot, or what you may have come to believe or dis-believe about the process, please choose to vote. You never know whose lives you might change for the better. Let the candidates know how you feel, what you want and need. They work for you. Regardless of how we have been assaulted in the political realm, or perhaps because of it, we must continue to understand that to vote is an amplification of one’s voice, it is a stand, and an act of resistance against tyranny that those of us who have not been stripped of our voting rights, must take on as moral obligation. Do it for those who cannot. Do it for yourself and the generations to come. Do it for the survival of our essential workers in the arts. And all are essential. If you have a stage, no matter where it is, or what it is, use it for the good of all.
We need everyone to choose sides with conviction. We need to demand justice and honest voices from our theatres: each and every one of us, calling forth ourselves and every player in every aspect of every definition of theater. It’s time to get uncomfortable; I mean panties and boxers and briefs and thongs in an uncomfortable twist.
Change is not created from a series of events, but from the re-building of our foundations. It is no time to re-form the same old. It is time to re-imagine and re-create. It is time for a Theatre of honest and true self-reflection with accompanying intentional, culturally-competent actions. A Theatre that can help to heal us. A Theatre that recognizes that it is more important to save each other than to save face.
To all who are still alive who voted for John V. Lindsay, I thank you. Your vote is one of the reasons I’m still here and more productive than ever.
We do nothing alone.
Magdalena Gómez is an award-wining playwright and Poet Laureate of Springfield, MA, where she co-founded Teatro V!da, the first Latinx intergenerational performing arts collective in the history of the city. She also created and implemented, Ign!te the M!c, offering peer to peer production, hosting, sustaining, directing and producing all aspects of a monthly open M!c at the Bing Arts Center, also in Springfield.
Ms. Gómez is an Academy of American Poets Laureate Fellow (2021-2022); the author of Shameless Woman (Red Sugarcane Press) and the co-editor of Bullying: Replies, Rebuttals, Confessions, and Catharsis (Skyhorse, 2012). In 2019 she received the Latinas 50 Plus Literature Award at Fordham University, and the Latinx Excellence on the Hill Award from the Black and Latino Legislative Caucus of MA at the State House, where she also delivered the keynote address. In 2021, she was appointed as a Commissioner for the Massachusetts COVID-19 Arts Recovery Commission. The nationally acclaimed musical, Dancing in My Cockroach Killers, based on a dozen of her poems, has been produced and performed in Los Angeles, DC, Massachusetts, and Off-Broadway by Pregones/ PRTT Theater.
Her memoir noir, Mi’ja was released in May of this year, by Heliotrope Books in New York City. The Community Fund of Western Massachusetts and Assets for Artists, awarded Ms. Gómez a 2022 Project Evolution Grant, to adapt Mi’ja into a solo performance work. Her short play, Apartment 19, was part of Burning Coal Theater’s 19th Amendment Project in 2021, and her monologue on Puerto Rican labor leader, journalist, feminist and entrepreneur, Luisa Capetillo, was twice included on the Shokan Project’s Put a Women on a Pedestal Fest, directed by Gwynn MacDonald for a virtual reading, and Allison
Astor del Valle, for a live staged reading Off-Broadway, at the Pregones/Puerto Rican Traveling Theater. work.
Ms. Gómez’s poem, Mother to a Stranger’s Child (Can I get a witness?) was selected by composer and conductor, Kevin Scott, for the creation a new work for orchestra, two choirs (children and adults), soprano and a narrator. The world premiere is expected for the 2023-2024 season (TBA). You can contact Magdalena at email@example.com