One of my favorite solo performance pieces is one I created for my solo play, “The Origins of Happiness in Latin,” a series of monologues about growing up in Miami in an immigrant Cuban family in the 1970’s. “Mrs. Martinez” always slays the audience. Everyone has had a Mrs. Martinez, that’s become quite clear to me since I started performing this piece!
This show in its entirety came about when I returned from performing Off-Broadway, circa 1998, and was approached by Luis Alfaro and Diane Rodriguez to join a “lab” of sorts that was part of the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, called the Latino Theatre Initiative. They also had several other minority writing labs going.
Within this program, I could basically come to the Mark Taper Forum and under the guidance of Caridad Svitch, tweezer-picked playwrights would come and take part in what I call the “seance” writing sessions.
There was a round table in the room, around which these brewers of tales would sit together and let the energies of inspiration flow around and touch each other’s artwork. The writing that came out of there was inspired and unique. But sadly, as the economic situation came on, they had to close down all the writing labs. Fortunately, my work there was finished by the time that it all came apart.
I submitted the play for a grant: The 2000 California Community Foundation’s Brody Award. I won it and with the dough mounted a production of a couple of monologues at the Tamarind Theatre on Franklin in Hollywood and performed a couple of pieces from it there. Thankfully, my friend Anthony Rapp (RENT) was in town, for at the time, there was a thing called “pilot season” — a special time when television networks would audition and create a lot of test shows for the next season.
I learned a lot from Anthony. He really impressed upon me the specificity that eventually you now see in the Mrs. Martinez monologue. Before that point I’d played characters doing a full on monologue. I’d never jumped from my own “persona of me” to a character within a monologue, except for while doing moments in stand-up… Rapp is a genius at acting like he’s doing very little in his direction. He’s a master of less is more. But the little choices that he created with me, and for me, are still in the piece… I really believe in working with directors on my solo work. As I tell my students, solo performance is an illusion, it’s never really solo.
I submitted the play to the Arizona Theatre Company and with my playwright friend Elaine Romero as part of that milieu, she really made a push for me. Turns out, in 2001 it won their National Latino Playwriting Award. This was a real honor, but aside from the award money, which was great, all things stayed silent… Little did I know, things were a-brewing…
Shortly after this, one of my first and most important acting teachers, Ellen Davis, in Miami, got the show sold as a 45 minute tour for middle & high schools in the Dade County area. I flew to Miami and Ellen did the first staging of most of the material. It was such a thrill to get to work with her. She was the teacher that really grounded me in acting and never let me get away with too much schtick. She was the one who embedded, who always demanded in my work a sense of reality. Her catch phrase for me was: “Feel, stop playing it for the comedy.”
The kids were great during the tour. I had some pieces of the show where I sort of danced around a little. In one of the all black schools, one kid stood up and asked me (mockingly) who taught me how to dance? … I said: Pee-Wee Herman… And that got me a laugh. But let’s face it. You perform for teenagers and you’re putting your artistic soul on the line, because they’ll aim straight for it! They don’t play around… I guess that’s what made me feel the play was pretty funny. If I could keep these teenagers entertained, it works!
A year later, in 2003, the Arizona Theatre Company called and asked if I’d be available to perform in a run of the show and I jumped at it! … Great reviews and word of mouth followed. I adored the ATC production, the director David Saar was a creative powerhouse, and really knew how to craft a delicate, funny show about family. (He reminded me of Jim Henson a little; he has his own children’s theatre company in Arizona called Childsplay).
I sent all the notices to Urban Stages in New York who had produced “Men on the Verge…” and they put me into their season for a two month run, directed by a cool Latino chap, Angel David. Again, New York critics were kind. And throughout all of it, I learned a lot about storytelling and family and what’s important in life… And I guess the greatest lesson is that in the end, even the people that pissed you off the most are important, because they were teachers of what you don’t like. Sometimes knowing that is as powerful as knowing what you do like.
Mrs. Martinez ended up being a great sport about the whole thing and she really did get to see the monologue when I played it in Miami. Gables Stage was the producing theatre of the tour, and she came to a one-night only event where I performed it there. She was very kind to my folks. After all, she also taught my two younger brothers, both of whom she called: “Pheeleeeps.”
Years later, through a friend on Facebook, I found out her low pitched voice came from the fact that in Cuba, she used to be a classical singer. Made me gain a whole new level of respect for her… Who knew?!
I should stop talking…
Here’s Mrs. Martinez. Hope you like…