puerto rican playwright

As a kid who was born in the same place and, loosely, the same time as hip-hop itself, seeing the form — with its roots in slavery, its lifeblood the songs of caged birds — deployed to such knowing and devastating effect is a thing to see. Rap is the voice of youthful, untempered passion and so the young revolutionaries of Miranda’s tale — Alexander Hamilton, Marquis de Lafayette, John Laurens and Hercules Mulligan — deliver their treatises in flow after flow of Fleet Street verse. As those men get older, their predisposition to rap fades — save Hamilton, who can summon that young-man’s vigor when provoked, like an old dog who will still rear up when poked.

If it weren’t enough that Miranda wrote enough rhymes to fill a phone book, he gives each of those men their own styles. Hamilton is the ahead-of-his-time genius who drops couplets and quatrains like Eminem or Rakim. Lafayette is all speed and brio, like Twista or Yelawolf. Laurens is a straight-down-the-middle Ad Rock, nimble and able. And Mulligan is what it’d sound like if Busta Rhymes were possessed by the Big Bad Wolf.

And when Miranda isn’t using his protean brain like the hammer of the gods, forging rhyme schemes that cut like folded steel on tracks like “My Shot,” “Guns and Ships” and the “Cabinet Battle” songs, he’s wielding that hammer like a glassblower, tapping out intricate, crystalline gems of songs like “Satisfied,” “Wait for It” and “Burn.”

All in service of a story that I shouldn’t care about because America has, until now, not decided that I should. The story of Alexander Hamilton was never distilled for me the way Miranda does it. If any of my teachers had thought to unfurl Hamilton’s life as the tragedy of a brilliant orphan who uses the written word, a prodigious gift for finance and what must’ve been an uncomfortably large set of personal flaws  to rise from obscurity to the pinnacle of American society, then I would’ve cared. But they didn’t, so neither did I.

And yet, that doesn’t really explain it. All of those reasons, while valid, don’t explain why this Broadway musical — a form that I appreciate but had never truly responded to — strikes a chord within me that I can’t quite silence. At least before I start weeping.

No. It’s that “Hamilton” is about a kid from the Caribbean who comes to New York City to find his future. My father was a kid from the Caribbean who came to New York to find his future. He was born in Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, and he came to New York with nothing but a talent for mathematics — a language without barriers — which he channeled into accounting, and a hunger to forge his path in the world.

I, on the other hand, hail from the Bronx, not far from the Washington Heights neighborhood where Miranda was born to Puerto Rican parents. Both the playwright and I are a generation removed from the islands of our fathers. Where my dad’s way out was numbers, mine was, and remains, the written word. I am keenly aware of the fact that, were you to consult the actuarial tables for black men born in 1971 in the Bronx, I have likely exceeded my life expectancy. I should be dead, or in jail, but I’m not. Instead, I write for television and comic books and, yes, for the Los Angeles Times.

“Hamilton” follows a man who fused the literary and the financial — and it is the first time I have seen myself, and my father before me, in a work of art.

Me after Hamilton
  • Me: You know mom, sometimes in life I realize I have to be humble. Because I have seen the face of God.
  • Mom: The pope?

The strangest play I’ve ever read and seen performed was Marisol by the Puerto Rican playwright José Rivera.

For those of you not familiar with it, imagine an episode of Supernatural except the protagonist is a Nuyorican woman with a black guardian angel who warns her that everyone is going to overthrow God because he’s super worthless now.

Just in case you think I’m exaggerating:

René Marqués (October 4, 1919 - March 22, 1979) was a renowned Puerto Rican short story writer and playwright.

Marqués was born, raised and educated in the city of Arecibo. He developed an interest in writing at a young age and was politically keen to support independence for the non-sovereign nation of Puerto Rico.

In the 1940s, Marqués wrote what is considered to be his best play, La Carreta (The Oxcart). In 1953, it opened in New York City. In 1954, it opened in San Juan and helped secure his reputation as a leading literary figure. The drama traces a rural Puerto Rican family as it moved to the slums of San Juan and then to New York in search for a better life, only to be disillusioned and to long for their island.

René Marqués was a member of what was known in Puerto Rico as “The Generation of the 40’s”. This was a group of intellectuals headed by Lorenzo Homar. In 1950, together with the other members of the group, Marqués worked for the Division of Community Education of Puerto Rico. Marqués however, did often come into conflict with Luis Muñoz Marín. He believed in complete Puerto Rican sovereignty and he often criticized Muñoz Marín, when he became governor, because of his acceptance of U.S. sovereignty over Puerto Rico.

In 1954, Puerto Rican director, Roberto Rodríguez, produced La Carreta, the play opened at the Church of San Sebastian, located in Manhattan, New York. The success of the play motivated Míriam Colón and Rodríguez to form the first Hispanic theater group with its own 60 seat theater, called “El Círculo Dramatico” (The Drama Circuit).

In 1955, Marqués wrote one of his later works, Juan Bobo y la Señora Occidental (Juan Bobo and the Lady of the Occident).

In 1959, Marqués published three plays together in the collection Teatro (Theater). These were La Muerte no entrará en Palacio (Death will not enter the Palace), Un Niño Azul para esa Sombra (A Blue Boy for that Shadow) and Los Soles Truncos. In an essay (1960), which the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party published as a pamphlet, Marqués addressed the problem of the language of instruction in Puerto Rico’s colonial situation. He concluded that only the enjoyment of complete national sovereignty will cleanse the pedagogical problem of all extra-pedagogical baggage.

In 1965, George Edgar and Stella Holt produced the English version of Marqués’ “The Oxcart" Off-Broadway, with Míriam Colón in the lead role.

René Marqués died in San Juan on March 22, 1979. Puerto Rico has named a school in his honor and in the Luis A. Ferré Performing Arts Center in San Juan, there is a 760-seat René Marqués Theater.