Inola M. McGuire at the American Theatre of Actors
The performance of the evening is “A Spanish Harlem Story” by Steve Silver, directed by Laurie Rae Waugh; and starring Rooki Tiwari, Larry Fleischman, Steve Silver, Ken Coughlin, and Eliana González.
The stage setting complements all of the scenes in the play and the ethnicities of the characters. There are Cuban, a Puerto Rican, and an Italian flags flying high on the walls. The audience recognizes the flags. The Cuban and the Puerto Rican flags hang close to each other, and these flags have almost the same shades red, white and blue colors. However, the Cuban flag has five horizontal bands of blue alternate with white with a red chevron based on the hoist side, bearing a white, five-pointed star in the center. The Puerto Rican flag on the other hand has five horizontal bands of red, top and bottom, and alternating with white; a blue triangle based on the hoist side, bearing a white, five-pointed star in the center. The Italian flag has tricolor of green, white and red of equal sizes; and the green is at the hoist side. The other items in the stage setting clearly represent a Spanish community.
The play begins with a woman, Rosaria, sweeping her living room floor and speaking to herself, the audience. She reminisces about the awful day of September 11, 2001 when she lost her daughter, Mercedes. Earlier that day on September 11, Mercedes dropped off her daughter, Maria, at her parents’ home in Spanish Harlem before she headed downtown to her job at World Trade Center. Manny and Rosaria were having breakfast with Maria when the entire scene unfolds on the television. Mercedes perished on that day like so many others after the building collapsed.
Rosaria picks up the pieces for her granddaughter’s sake. She does it Puerto Rican style. The audience hears music; and Rosaria and her husband, Manny begin to dance to the beat of the music. Manny and Rosaria communicate with each other. Manny breaks the news that his partner-in-crime is back in the neighborhood. This revelation changes the mood in the living room. Rosaria tries to convince her husband, Manny that his childhood friend is bad news through the rehashing of the numerous murders perpetrated by him in the community.
Mikey visits the couple and he goes into memory lane with the tale of his maiden journey into a life of crime. Rosaria gets an ear full of her husband’s and his best friend first stint in jail after being arrested in Brooklyn. Rosaria listens attentively to her husband and Mikey. The guys indulge in their juvenile-delinquent conversation. Mikey drops a bomb on Manny. He tells him he plans to get marry to his lawyer who kept him out of jail in California. Her name is Juanita Goldman. She has Spanish and Jewish backgrounds. Rosaria excuses herself and she leaves the room. The guys continue with their conversation. Mickey tries to entice Manny with a few hair-brain schemes. He tells Manny about his prospective drug dealings with a Dominican crew, and he gives Manny a gun to hold for him.
Manny is unable to say no to Mikey. Both of them encounter Uncle Tony at the Social Club. Uncle Tony tells them his views about “El Barrio.” He has disdain for certain people in the community, and he speaks openly about his disgust. Uncle Tony thinks about Manny and Mikey as his sons. He refers to Manny as “rice and beans” and he calls Mikey his nephew. Uncle Tony shares his philosophical opinion about America. He states, “America’s not a country! It’s a business.” He highlights that 9/11 changes everything in his world, and he reminisces about the good old days and the child-molester priest in the community. Both uncle and nephew share other stories about brutal murders with Manny and the audience. The next group on Uncle Tony’s radar is the Dominicans. He thinks this group has more balls than brain.
Uncle Tony continues with his barrage of cautionary tales, and he reminds his nephew, Mikey that he has diarrhea of the mouth. Mikey gets a beat down from his uncle. Uncle Tony searches Manny before he continues with his lecture about his line of business. Uncle Tony tells Manny and Mikey about her personal problems, and how he was able to resolve this problem. One benefactor of Uncle Tony’s illegal enterprise wants to receive money without getting his hands dirty.
Manny falls asleep in his living room and he dreams about his daughter Mercedes. She talks with her father about the quality time she spent with him. She reminds Manny about the scams and shake downs in the community. Manny’s daughter wants the best for her father. She reminds him of bad company, using drugs, and the pitfalls of life. However, she praises Manny for the special attention, his full attention that money can’t buy. Her experience of the free concert in the part resonates in her voice. Mercedes reminds her father of his honest-to-goodness heart; and she encourages him to look deep within himself to find that place. She encourages him to follow his heart and he must do the right thing.
Manny gets a reminder that Uncle Tony killed more people than cancer. Larceny permeates in his heart. Manny professes that nothing is going on out of the ordinary; but Rosaria knows that Mikey and his uncle are up to no good with their criminal minds. Manny wants a one-shot deal. It’s not a trip to the welfare office trying to get help in order to pay up his back rent. This deal is all about making fast money selling or distributing drugs and destroying the neighborhood. Manny wants a one-shot deal from a drug-related transaction between the Dominicans and Uncle Tony’s crew. There is a considerable amount of risk involved if Manny decides to follow through on his zeal for the green.
Rosaria tells Manny about her sacrifice to the family and what all she has done for him. She reminds him about his love and care during her time of grief during and after 9/11. She wants him to pick his family over Mikey’s hair-brain schemes. She wants him to think about their granddaughter. He gets another opportunity to do things right this time around. She gives him an ultimatum if he doesn’t say no to Mikey, the criminal. Rosaria wants her loving husband back. She wants him to stay away from his friend, Mikey because he is bad news. Whenever Mikey is around bad things do happen to good people.
Manny tells Mikey about his decision not to get involved with the criminal activity, and Mikey tries to berate poor Manny about his not being able to leave the community because he can’t afford the trappings of life. Manny describes his experience of feeling helpless after the 9/11 attack. Mikey is not interested in Manny’s explanation. He wants to get his way, and Manny holds his ground. Manny’s leaving the dark side for good; and Mikey tries to reminisce about their childhood days as a way to manipulate Manny back into a life of crime.
Manny and Mikey try to become very sentimental with each other with quotes from Gandhi and Hemingway. Mikey brings on his bombardment of words with all his influence without avail from Manny, and he demands his weapon, the gun. By now, Rosaria realizes that Mikey wants her husband to self-destruct with a few consequences that fit the life of a criminal. Manny will either end up behind bars, dead or alone if he decides on helping or working with Mikey. Rosaria slaps Mikey. Mikey, like the common criminal he is, wants to retaliate; and Manny defends his wife’s honor. By the time the dust settles, Mikey lies on the floor mortally wounded. The couple panics for a brief moment. It is either Uncle Tony or the police. Manny and Rosaria have to make a decision quickly. Time is not a luxury for them.
The audience sees Uncle Tony, Manny and Rosaria in a deep conversation over the death of Mikey. Mikey’s death becomes costly for Manny and Rosaria. As the saying goes, you can’t go home again. Manny seeks help from his uncle to pacify Uncle Tony. Rosaria tell the audience that Uncle Tony’s reign of terror for 40 years in Spanish Harlem ended with a barrage of bullets. She and Manny pick up the pieces with their granddaughter, Maria; and they move to Puerto Rico. They put September 11, 2001 behind them. Manny speaks to the audience about his tranquil life on the beach with the woman he loves and his granddaughter.
The writer gets his message across loud and clear. A Spanish Harlem Story is a real American story of immigrants and their families, criminals, and the other factors that make the area so special. For those people who may be interested in knowing the boundaries of this community, here they are: 96th Street to the south, 5th Avenue to the west, the East River to the east and the Harlem River to the north. In addition, Spanish Harlem is also known as East Harlem and El Barrio, which means the ghetto in Spanish. I recommend theatre goers and non-theatre goers alike to see this play. The play has all of the intrigue of life in New York City, but the audience has to be mindful of the epicenter that creates such a rich and wonderful story to share with the world.