The great grandfather's eyes seemed like pieces of gold to the young girl, who saw wisdom when she looked into them.  Playwright Migdalia Cruz is talking about Isabel, the 13 year-old Puerto Rican girl, and the relationship she has with her 112-year-old great grandfather, the co-protagonists in her play, Yellow Eyes, now having its world premiere at Crossroads Theater Company.  "The play," she explains, "is about two journeys. One for the girl who learns about the legacy her great grandfather left her, the other journey of the great grandfather, from his life as an African slave in Puerto Rico in the 1860s to his life in the Bronx in the 1970s.

Inspired by the life of her great grandfather, who actually lived to be 112 years old, Yellow Eyes is about the relationship of two people whose lives together span a century. Although Cruz, the author of more than thirty plays, musicals, and operas produced in the United States and abroad, says that the play is more fictional than biographical, she has drawn many parallels between her family and the one in the play.  Cruz says her play concerns the experiences of two people, one very young and one very old, in the time following the civil rights movement.  Cruz knows this as a time when many people are seeing the differences in the races. "It becomes a volatile time for Isabel, who is a mixture of African, Spanish and Indian, as are most Puerto Ricans."  In the play, Isabel learns of her heritage from her great grandfather, and he learns to stay young and maintain hope."

Yellow Eyes, which was presented in a short one-act version last season as part of Crossroads' 10th anniversary Genesis Festival of new works, is the first play to come out of a new cross-cultural commissioning project by the Tony Award-winning theater company. "It's wonderful for me to feel included," says Cruz, in the program that has been set up to develop work that addresses the relationships between the African-American community and other people of color.

When I ask Cruz if she really thinks writers need to be urged to address this, she says, "I don't know about need. It's instinctive in all my work. Afro-Puerto Ricans are a part of my world. But, I hope it does encourage writers of color to explore their roots with more depth."  What is different about the Crossroads project, as Cruz sees it, is that it is the first time it is being done by an African-American Theater.  "My play is another piece of the African-American Diaspora, one Puerto Rican's tale of connection to African roots."

As fate would have it, Cruz's play was chosen at the last minute when the play originally chosen for the slot was canceled. Cruz remembers she was six months pregnant when she got a call from Crossroads and told about the Genesis Festival and their goal to find writers with plays that explored cross-cultural roots. "Can you write a play in about a month?" they asked Cruz.  She would know what to answer: "Of course, I already have my mind on family issues and my roots." Now seven months old, Antonia Bess is with her mother in New Brunswick during the hectic rehearsal period. To punctuate how the question of roots stays foremost on her mind, Cruz tells me that Antonia was the name of her great grandmother, and Bess was the name of her husband's great aunt.

Every year for the past few years Cruz has been writing for the Latino Chicago Theater Company. "And every year we do a `day of the dead' ceremony where we create these altars for our dead family members. In the past few years I have been making one for my great  grandfather. Part of my altar has always been words, an essay, a short story." One of these was a one-page "monologue/essay" about Cruz's great grandfather called "Yellow Eyes," published in 1989 in a collection called "Telling Tales." Since then Cruz says she was anxious to write about him more and explore her connection to him. So it was easy for her to say, "great, I'll do it." Until that time, Cruz had never submitted a play to Crossroads, because she says, "I thought they only produced African-American writers." "For the Genesis Festival, Yellow Eyes was only a one-act play, twenty two pages long. Now at 95 pages, Yellow Eyes has evolved into a full evening.

Making a success of African- American Theater has been a long hard struggle, even for the Tony Award-winning Crossroads Theater Company.  I asked Cruz if she had any thoughts on Crossroads' attempt to expand its boundaries to include other playwrights of color, especially during Black History month.  "I think it is important for them to keep their mission clear," she answers, "because theaters devoted to artists of color are so rare. I know of so many Latino theaters that have closed. It is kind of scary step." We discuss whether Crossroads should open their theater to everybody. Cruz poses whether one new play produced each year would serve to widen the borders would be inclusive, while more might dilute their mission. "Keeping Crossroads alive is the most important mission, because there are so many African-American writers, and so few venues," Cruz adds, as we discuss the recent newsworthy turmoil over Crossroads' currently precarious financial stability. Cruz says she has Crossroads' artistic director Ricardo Khan (currently on sabbatical) to thank for noticing her work and asking her to participate.

A digression allows Cruz to volunteer an opinion on the newsworthy Robert Brustein/August Wilson confrontational debate at Town Hall, that climaxed their diverse and incendiary comments and articles (from each) regarding black versus white theater first aired at a theater conference at Princeton two years earlier.  After a long hearty laugh, she says, "It was ridiculous. It reduced the whole world to black and white. Excuse me, but there are Puerto Ricans and others out here." Cruz considers "how disappointing it is when as a writer you are only thought of because of your color, a woman 'New Yor-ican' from the Bronx." On the other hand, Cruz says that because there is racism everywhere and she will be judged by her ethnicity, she will take whatever opportunity comes her way.

Characterizing her own style of writing as "poetic realism," Cruz says that while her main mission is writing about people of color, people who haven't always had a voice, she has written about other people and cites Frida Kahlo, the Mexican intellectual. Cruz wrote the libretto for the opera Frida: The Story of Frida Kahlo, produced by the Houston Grand Opera and presented there and at BAM and other large venues. Cruz also says her play, Miriam's Flowers, was her first crossover play because it was done in 1990 at Playwrights Horizons, "a white theater." It was Cruz's first production at a non-Latino theater. A 1997 production of Fur, a post-apocalyptic re-telling of "Beauty and Beast" was produced by Chicago's Steppenwolf Studio and continued her crossover career.

Born and raised in the Bronx, Cruz graduated in 1980 from Lake Erie College in Ohio with a BFA in playwriting, received her Masters degree from Columbia University in 1984, and has since taught at New York University, University of Iowa and Princeton. Cruz has high praise for her former teacher and mentor, Cuban-born playwright Maria Irene Fornes, the current playwright-in-residence at Signature Theater Company, with whom she studied from 1984 to 1991. Cruz has recently been commissioned to write another in her series of Puerto Rican history plays for the Joseph Papp/Public Theater. Married since 1984, Cruz currently resides in Connecticut with her daughter and husband, a communications editor for Schlumberger, an oil-drilling research company. Unlike many writers of color and talent, Cruz can boast that since she began writing she has had over fifty professional productions of her plays produced nationally and internationally, including London, Montreal, and Mexico City.

Cruz's director-of-choice for Yellow Eyes is Talvin Wilks, with whom she co-wrote a piece, Occasional Grace, for En Garde Arts Theater in 1989. Wilks' association with Crossroads includes the world premiere of his play, Tod, The Boy, Tod, and as director of Ntozake Shange's The Love Space Demands. Set design is by Evan Alexander; lighting design by Darren W. McCroom; costume design by Elizabeth Hope Clancy.  David Molina is composer and sound designer. Included in the cast of Yellow Eyes are Jack Landron, Virginia Rambal, Amarelys Perez, Pascale, Armand, Dyron Holmes and Elisa Bocanegra, each undoubtedly finding theatrical wisdom in the eyes of Cruz and Wilks.



Key Subjects: 
Migdalia Cruz, Crossroads Theater Company; Yellow Eyes
Simon Saltzman
Writer Bio: 
Simon Saltzman has written dozens of New York theater reviews for This Month ON STAGE magazine. His interviews have appeared in TMOS and on Playbill On-Line.
January 2000
Latina Playwright Keeps Her <I>Eyes</I> On The Crossroads