Puerto Rican Playwright Paola Lázaro is Writing Refreshing and Complex Latino Characters For the Stage

The first time I realized what a story really was…was because of a salsa song my dad used to play in the car. It was my favorite song.”

Playwright Paola Lázaro groaned when I started recording our conversation, but she hits a stride when talking about salsa. This should be no surprise – the titular Hector of her play Tell Hector I Miss Him, which closes this weekend at the Atlantic Theater Company’s Stage 2, is none other than El Cantante, Héctor Lavoe himself. She tells me Lavoe was “a man of the people. He was a symbol of hope. He was flawed and beautiful. To me that’s real.” And while he’s not a character in Hector, his presence looms large. The San Juan of this play is populated by people down on their luck and yearning for connection, making their way through life as best they can while guarding hidden pieces of themselves from erosion. Mostro (Juan Carlos Hernández), a local shopkeep, plays old salsa non-stop, while the down and out Hugo (Flaco Navaja, of Flaco Navaja & the Razor Blades) talks to his dead father in drug induced visions, and can’t believe the old man’s met Héctor Lavoe up in heaven. There’s something about those old songs that holds possibility, something these characters refuse to let go of.

But back to storytelling: “It was by Roberto Roena and it was called ‘El Escapulario.’ It was about this orphan, and this old woman who took him in, and he became this famous bullfighter, and falls in love with this woman, and then when she realizes he’s an orphan she leaves him.” She laughs at the premise. I’m drinking a beer and she’s drinking a cappuccino – the server at this place told us they didn’t do cappuccinos, here, but offered to see if they could do one special. I guess Lázaro kind of just has that effect on people.

She continues, “I’m a salsa freak, ever since I was a kid. 70s salsa. Roberto Roena, Héctor, Willie, Ray Barreto, all of them. There’s something about the structure of salsa, the feeling of community with the chorus of men singing, commenting on the situation of the main character…” (And in that moment I think about everything I learned in school about Greek theater.) “Salsa to me is about love, pain – it’s not afraid to be ugly. It’s fearless. 70’s salsa was fearless. They were talking about real shit, you know what I’m saying? Like, about flawed love, about the street, about pain, about macho culture…”

Juan Carlos Hernández and Selenis Leyva. Photo via The Atlantic Theater Company
Read more

“And listening to salsa as a woman!,” Lazaro continues. “You know there’s this Ismael Rivera song, it’s called ‘El Jaragual,’ and it goes ‘Que inmenso, que inmenso, ser el dueño de la finca y la mujer.’ It’s a beautiful song about him being so happy on his farm with his wife, but at the same time what it’s saying is you’re the owner of your wife. And as a woman I always thought, ‘What about her? Is she okay?’”

This theme – of love intermingled with pain, of the flaws in beautiful things – weaves itself throughout Hector, a play where, as Paola puts it, “everybody’s right and everybody’s wrong.” The shopkeep is the moral center, but he can be a tyrant to his wife; that wife, Samira, (Orange is the New Black’s Selenis Leyva), bored and seeking an outlet, is sleeping with the charismatic drug dealer Jeison (Victor Almanzar). Meanwhile, Jeison has fallen hopelessly in love with her, all while taking care of his disabled brother Palito (Sean Carvajal), whose girlfriend Tati (Analisa Velez) treats him like shit because everyone else does, even though she claims to love him.

Dasha Polanco and Yadira Guevara-Prip. Photo via The Atlantic Theater Company
Read more

All the while, the hard-bitten Malena (Dascha Palanco) is busy keeping an over-amorous teenager (Yadira Guevara-Prip) at arms-length, while the troubled Toño wrestles with whether to run away from his alcoholic mother (Lisa Ramirez), who he knows won’t be able to take care of herself without him. Watching the play, I was struck by these characters’ raw humanity: none of them are happy, but all of them are doing their best.

“Salsa to me is about love, pain – it’s not afraid to be ugly. It’s fearless.”

They aren’t defined by their pain, but rather by whatever fantasy, motivational tape, sense of duty, or other coping mechanism they have to get them past that pain. It was refreshing to see Latino characters this way – often, as if overcorrecting for decades of stereotypical roles, Latino stories err on the side of cloying.

I ask, “Do you think some audience members come in expecting a different kind of play?” The night I saw it, two white season ticket holders seated to my right left at intermission. Apparently this isn’t an uncommon occurrence – Lázaro tells me the first few times it happened it was painful, but she’s gotten used to it, including one instance of an older patron exclaiming, “I need out!”

Flaco Navaja and Luis Vega . Photo via The Atlantic Theater
Read more

I wondered at the time if it was just the frank discussions of sex and the word “fuck” peppered throughout like punctuation that had driven these patrons out, but there’s always a part of me that wonders if too many Latin characters on stage at once, swerving in and out of Spanish and not catering to a “mainstream audience’s” sensibilities is just too much to bear. When I saw Tanya Saracho’s Fade at the Cherry Lane just a few weeks ago, and not a lick of English is spoken in the first five minutes, a dismayed woman a few rows behind me cried out, “Oh no! Is it all in Spanish?” All the same, it means something that such powerful mainstream institutions are putting their faith in these artists, and deciding that these are the stories their subscribers need to see – even if they have to be dragged kicking and screaming.

Lázaro shrugs. “I think some people are expecting something uplifting. Sometimes life is uplifting. Sometimes it’s not.” Hector isn’t a tragedy by any means, but the endings aren’t totally happy, either. These are people. Sometimes people suck, and sometimes people settle for what they can get.

Often, as if overcorrecting for decades of stereotypical roles, Latino stories err on the side of cloying.

“I just wanted to tell a story that was real to me,” Lázaro says, “with however many flaws there were. The first day the cast sat down to read it I said to everyone, ‘This is a play that, to me, is about love.’ They’re faulty concepts of love, but they were love to me nonetheless. You know what I’m saying? A person can be a macho asshole yet loving at the same time. I wasn’t gonna lie about what I wanted to write about, and these people are real. At least for me. If we’re gonna tell our stories, we can’t close the door on some of them, like, ‘Ay, no no no no no, I don’t want them to know that happens.’ It’s a gamble you take whenever you create something. You’re gonna get shit from some people.”

By now Lázaro needs to get going – she’s been backstage listening to every performance save three.

As if defying the macho culture of her father’s salsa music, she insists on getting the bill.