“In the name of all the Puerto Ricans that came over on steamships like the Marine Tiger. In the name of Tito Puente, and Albizu Campos, and Julia de Burgos – I herein now and forever name this place “La Mariposa!” (The Butterfly) – so declares the protagonist in Eugene Rodriguez’s play about an East Harlem “fixer-upper.”
Presented by Rodriguez’s company, El Barrio Theater Group, La Mariposa stars Herbert Quiñones as Louie, the pseudo-curmudgeon “man of the house” with a paint-bucket of dreams in one hand and a remote control in the other; Amneris Morales as Carmen, the flamboyant, shopaholic “younger” sister who adeptly tosses bilingual insults and compliments in the same breath; and Belange Rodriguez as Sonia, Louie’s not-quite-suffering feisty wife who tries to keep the peace while exploiting the momentum generated during heated discussions about the state of their home.
All in La Familia
They say it takes one to know one, and if you’ve ever lived in East Harlem (or visited relatives here), you will immediately empathize with the comedic trials and tribulations of a family struggling to build their Nuyorican dream. The banter and laughter (and tears) flow effortlessly between English and Spanish, as is often the case in Puerto Rican households in New York City. “Coño, carajo, caramba, Caribe!” is the hilarious mantra of these characters in conflict. No translation needed.
With Bob Marley and Don Pedro Albizu Campos t-shirts and hysterical (and historical) verbal phrases bandied about, the play’s costumes and script are filled with popular cultural and political “indirectas” (subtle references) that can best be appreciated by those with certain first and second-generation Boricua sensibilities.
It’s all about “Our Nuyorican Thing,” as author Samuel Diaz would say. Bueno, ya tu sabes – and if you don’t, well now you do.
Actors Quiñones, Morales, and Rodriguez skillfully master the witty verbal repartee – gleefully manipulating the audience with side-splitting humor while revealing universal secrets that every Latinx knows to be true. Like the threat of chancletas upside your head, for example.
Of Chrysalises and Cocoons in El Barrio
As we step inside La Mariposa, we see a thrift-shop sofa transformed into a way-too-comfortable bed in a sparse living room that doubles as a fighting arena. But, it is the ever-present fireplace that we witness metamorphosing into a magnificent homage to family and future. With just a few strategically placed adornments, La Mariposa’s threadbare set brilliantly mirrors the sweat-equity of 20th-century Puerto Ricans who struggled to transform once-abandoned buildings into their brownstone castles.
La Mariposa is not only the name of Rodriguez’s play, it is an actual house, and therein lies in the true tale. As local legend goes, the play is loosely based on Rodriguez’s own struggles with renovating and maintaining his home in East Harlem. If you venture along the Pleasant Avenue area, you just might come across a building with a magnificent red door, behind which you will find not only a beautiful house, but also a gathering place for local artists. “It’s become a cultural center,” explains Rodriguez. “We don’t lock the door so people just walk in!”
“The real story is that my sister gave me a beautiful brass shaving set. It was gorgeous, so I put it on a shelf, but then I realized how messed up the bathroom was. The shaving kit looked real nice, so I had to do a whole new bathroom just for the shaving kit,” he jokes.
“Coño, carajo, caramba, Caribe!”
But Rodriguez isn’t kidding when it comes to maintaining and protecting his East Harlem home, and even “cast a spell” on developers who destroyed a Buddha statue in his rear garden during construction of an eight-story luxury condo.
“The curse is getting stronger,” he assured reporters when a partial stop-work order was issued in 2015.
A Bittersweet Reunion
Although he is delighted and grateful for the opportunity to showcase his work at the Julia de Burgos Latino Cultural Center, Rodriguez says he is also conflicted about bringing La Mariposa to the newly renovated theater because he fought so hard to make his way inside.
In 2013, he and other artists held a series of demonstrations (“alfresco theater”) in front of the building to protest the city’s closure of the center’s 2,800-square-foot event space and 4,300 square foot, 160-seat theater in September 2010. (After a political battle which cost the Taller Boricua arts collective managerial control of the ground-floor community space, the Hispanic Federation was awarded $1.31 million in 2014 and granted control of the ground-floor event space and second-floor theater by the New York Economic Development Corporation. Both areas were then renovated with city funding and finally opened to the public in 2015.)
“It’s been a long time since we’ve been able to get inside,” Rodriguez explains. “We’re finally here, and now a part of something that I hope will turn out to be good for the neighborhood. I’ve been trying to create a theater district in El Barrio for over 10 years. This is one of the first spaces we’ve been trying to open up. We potentially have enough theaters in East Harlem for at least 12 playwrights a year.”
Rodriguez’s history with the building goes back even further. “I was chairman of the community board when [Mayor] Koch was trying to turn the building into a homeless shelter for HIV patients,” he recalls.
“Right in this theater, which used to be the school gym, I told the Mayor that we would ‘burn the joint down’ before we would let that happen. [Mayor] Dinkins came in and they turned it into the Julia de Burgos Latino Cultural Center.
“Since then, [the City] has put in a whole bunch of road blocks for people to produce stuff here. But in the last couple of years they finally realized that in order to make the place fly they would have to accommodate groups like mine, which they have. The Hispanic Federation has been wonderful.”
Per Chance to Dream of a Theater District?
Rodriguez’s artistic vision surpasses his own work as he has long advocated for the creation of a theater district in East Harlem. “We’ve been talking about what we’re going to do next year,” he says. “If we make a little bit of money here hopefully, we’ll be able to do some more readings in the neighborhood. I have some investors that want to do the Mambo Café again, so we’ll see. But you know I have 20 plays.”
Rodriguez sees theater as the keystone to a thriving cultural renaissance in East Harlem. “It is the bridge between the arts and entertainment; between the museums and the restaurants; between the art galleries and the lounges,” he expounds. “Theatre brings it all together. Every day that these spaces remain dark and unused is another missed opportunity for the neighborhood.
Now playing at the Julia de Burgos Performance and Arts Center (1680 Lexington Avenue in East Harlem), La Mariposa is co-sponsored by the Puerto Rican Institute for the Development of the Arts and the Hispanic Federation.
THE HISTORY OF LA MARIPOSA
La Mariposa was first produced as a one-act Play in October 1994 at the Nuyorican Poets Café by the Puerto Rican Intercultural Drama Ensemble (PRIDE), as part of a one-act play festival entitled; “RicanStruction: Estorias from the Barrio.” It was directed by Frank Perez, and starred Jose Yenque, Delilah Picart, and Desi Moreno. La Mariposa was again produced on Broadway, at the West End Gate on 114th Street, in March 1995.
This full length version of La Mariposa was first produced at the Nuyorican Poets Café in August 1998. It was directed by George Zavala, and starred Delilah Picart, Desi Moreno, and Eugene Rodriguez.
Today, La Mariposa with Belange Rodriguez, Amneris Morales, and Herbie Quiñones, and directed by Efraim Ayala is the first production of The El Barrio Theatre Group Inc. (ELBA), in the theatre at the Julia de Burgos Performance Arts Center.
Belange Rodriguez (Sonia), like her mother Amneris, Belange is also a distinguished award-winning actress with a long list of film, television, Broadway, and off-Broadway credits. Belange Rodríguez is a young actress with an extensive experience in theatre, films and TV in Puerto Rico and New York.
She’s worked for various shows for Telemundo International in Puerto Rico. In New York she’s worked on Broadway (Latinologues) and Off-Broadway (Repertorio Español and PRTT). ACE, HOLA and IATI Awards recipient.
Amneris Morales (Carmen) is a distinguished award-winning actress who has been performing since the 1980s in novelas, films, and off-Broadway productions. Amneris Morales was born on July 7, 1958 in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
She is an actress and producer, known for La Granja (2015), El cuento inolvidable de la abuela (2002) and Poquita cosa (1983). She was previously married to Miguel Ángel Suárez. She has often performed with her daughter Belange Rodríguez.
On one occasion, in Carlos J. Serrano’s stage play The Ortiz Sisters of Mott Haven, she played her daughter’s older sister.
Herbert Quiñones (Louie). Born and raised in New York City by a single-mom, Quiñones began his theatre training with La Familia ensemble theatre company (La Familia was responsible for helping to bring Miguel Pinero’s Short Eyes to Broadway and then Hollywood) Quiñones was an original member of the SalSoul Comedy troupe where he was able to hone his comedic talent.
It was with SalSoul that Quiñones along with comedian Rich Ramirez reinterpreted the classic Abbot and Costello routine ‘Who’s on First?”, “Quien esta en Primera?” which can be seen on YouTube. Quiñones played the character “El Bori” on Univision radio’s ground-breaking morning show Coco-y-Celines de seis-a-diez: Quiñones also created, wrote, produced and hosted the bilingual sports-talk show Sports Salsa on Bronxnet.
Producer, Luis Cordero-Santoni is a graphic artist born in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico. Since 2006 he has been on the Board of Directors of Comité Noviembre and produced the organization’s Puerto Rican Artisan Fair.
With Comité Noviembre ‘s support, Cordero and several other artists co-founded the Puerto Rican Institute for the Development of the Arts (PRIDA), which has distinguished itself as one of the few organizations dedicated to the preservation and promotion of Puerto Rican arts and culture.
Director, Efraim Ayala, the son of a preacher man and a native of East Harlem, Ayala has been in theatre since he saw a production of Junkie’s Paradise at the Theatre Arts Center on 110th Street and Lexington Avenue in 1967. Because of his love for singing, Ayala gravitated to musical theatre. His directorial debut was a production of West Side Story at age 16.
He has worked as a puppeteer and bilingual story teller for The Shadowbox Theatre Company. Ayala has also done such musicals such as Sweet Charity, Promises Promises, and Pippin. He recently worked with director Leona Hull in the shows A Twisted Christmas Carol and Seven Historical Women. Ayala continues to work in all aspects of the performing arts.
Playwright Eugene Rodriguez is an award-winning playwright, producer, poet, actor, and dramaturge. He is a founding member of the Shaman Repertory Theatre, and founder and director of the El Barrio Theater Group, and a former member of the Dramatists Guild. Rodriguez was a member of the Puerto Rican Traveling Theatre’s professional playwrights workshop for over 10 years and has written 21 plays in the last 20 years, including: Mambo Louie and the Dancing Machine, Un Ghost, The King is Dead, The Mambo Café, Home Soon, and La Mariposa.
Even though Rodriguez does not consider himself to be an actor, he has made appearances in numerous theatrical productions, including: Manolo in The Universe by Carmen Rivera; The Ghost, in Un Ghost; El Super, in Some People Have All The Luck by Candido Tirado; The Taxi Driver, in Special People of International Character by Frank Perez; A White Man Stuck in a Black Man’s Body, in Eclipse by Fred Rohan Vargas; Petito Revolver, in Petito Revolver: The Broadway II Mystery by Louis Delgado and Gloria Feliciano; Louie, the lazy Husband, in La Mariposa; Chencho, in El Living Room by Pedro Pietri; and Paul in Apostles of the Apocalypse by Frank Perez.
Rodriguez was born and raised in El Barrio/East Harlem where he currently resides with his wife and three children in a brownstone that was once an abandoned building now known affectionately as “La Mariposa.
Correction: According to the Hispanic Federation, they “were never awarded with $1.31 million in 2014 to manage and produce programs in the ground-floor event space and second-floor theater,” as previously reported. “[The] award was for the Communities of Color Nonprofit Stabilization Fund [another city agency]. Hispanic Federation has a 5-year lease with the New York Economic Development Corporation (NYEDC), to manage the rental space of the Theater, Multipurpose Room and 2 studios at the Julia de Burgos Latino Cultural Center, and create diverse programming that serves the community of El Barrio.
“We are tenants of the Julia de Burgos Latino Cultural Center and pay monthly rent as all other tenants in the building do. To serve our mission of strengthening Latino nonprofits and neighborhoods such as El Barrio, we collaborate with groups such as yours that know and are rooted in the community. Our commitment is supported by the rentals and Hispanic Federation sponsors.”