One of the leading Puerto Rican/Latino theaters in the United States is Pregones Theater, and the mother at its core is Rosalba Rolón, who gave birth to the theater 36 years ago. In her maternal arms, Rolón has carried this theater from its start as a touring company to its place as an institution in the South Bronx.
Pregones is also the cradle for the career and passion of Rolón’s daughter, Rosal Colón. “My mother’s water broke while she was in a performance. My first moments [of life] were in the theater,” says Colón, now a successful actress herself.
A Dramatic History
Pregones Theater started as an idea formed by a group of young Puerto Rican performers —including Luis Meléndez, David Crommett, and Rolón—who decided to create a play to commemorate the history of theater in Puerto Rico. That play, La Colección: 100 Years of Puerto Rican Theater. La colección, incorporated scenes from 11 Puerto Rican plays, dating from 1878 to 1978. By the 1980s, a new generation of artists joined the original group, including Alvan Colón-Lespier and Jorge Merced, both of whom remain as associate artistic directors.
The theater eventually found a place to flourish in the high-ceilinged gym of St. Ann’s Episcopal Church in the South Bronx. Among some of their original productions were Areyto de Pescadores (1982), High Noon/Al Mediodía (1983), Migrants!: Cantata a los emigrantes (1985), The Caravan (1986) and Voices of Steel (1990). This last one was a collective creation born from actor’s improvisation and experimentation inspired by Puerto Rican political prisoners in isolated U.S. High Security Unit jails in the late 1980s.
“I was very young but I sensed there was a very important political message [in Voices of Steel],” says Colón. “I would come home and the conversations [with my parents, Rosalba and Alvan] spanned daily life with family but also social justice. It is something they have dedicated their lives to, politically and artistically.”
By the 1990s, a Visiting Artists Series program allowed the company to serve the broader Latino community with diverse art, including opera, poetry, rock, and Latin Jazz. Aided by generous grants, the theater relocated to The Studio, a 2,500 sq. ft. loft on 153rd St. and Grand Concourse—blocks away from Yankee Stadium. Larger company productions, such as Baile Cangrejero (1991), Medea’s Last Rosary (1992), Fables of The Caribbean (1994), The Blackout (1995) and Quintuples (1996), were presented.
In 1998, Pregones started a series of curriculum development sessions sponsored by the New York Office of Bilingual Education of the Board of Education Department. The following year, Pregones Summer Stage, a yearly series of outdoor theater performances throughout New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, was launched. Other collaborations took place with Taller Puertorriqueño, La Salle University, and The Puerto Rican Traveling Theater (PRTT), this last one culminating in a successful merger between the two theaters (Pregones-PRTT) in 2013. Two pivotal members joined: Miriam Colón Valle, PRTT founder and longtime artistic director, became founding artistic adviser, and Desmar Guevara became Pregones musical director and composer.
As time went on, Pregones grew deep roots in the Bronx. Every original production took into consideration the personal, social, political, and artistic needs of its audience: the community.
“They achieve this by choosing, producing, and creating plays that are relevant to the lives, struggles and celebration in art of a diversified community otherwise underrepresented, misrepresented or not presented at all,” says Eva Vasquez, author of Pregones Theatre: A Theatre for Social Change in the South Bronx. Vasquez was a young actress in 1991, and Pregones was her first theatrical home in New York.
“Pregones’ plays seek to recognize, for instance, the contradictory faces, dreams, desires, triumphs, and defeats that make up the fiber of their community,” says Vasquez. “Through workshops, conferences, festivals participation, traveling and training, Pregones continues to offer new and diverse forms of expression and to encourage new and young, as well as established talent to find a space for expression.”
The New Millennium
The new millennium found the theater growing in its reach outward to other disenfranchised communities. In 2000 Pregones inaugurated Asunción Playwrights Project, an open script competition for Latino playwrights. The competition showcases the work of playwrights exploring issues of difference and transformation regarding queer identity.
But the new millennium also brought the need to find a new home.
It was time for “growing roots and wings,” said Rolón in a 2010 interview. She found a new home for her baby in a warehouse near 149th Street and Grand Concourse. But the disused space needed renovation. For two years the administration of the theater drafted versions of business plans, met with elected officials, staff of foundations and corporations, and community representatives and administrators of the Bronx Empowerment Zone. In 2003, they unveiled a $2.7 million capital campaign. Eventually, grassroots support and grant-matching individual donations helped complete the fundins.
In 2005, in time for Pregones’ 25th anniversary, their new theater opened with the inaugural production of The Red Rose featuring Danny Rivera. The Red Rose is based on the historical events of the red scare of the 1950s from the point of view of Jesús Colón.
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As always, Pregones utilizes a nonconventional approach to creating drama that challenges myths surrounding marginalized communities. Says Vazquez, “The selection of themes for research and creative exploration often requires the input from all company members previous to writing a theater piece and the process of researching and improvising scenes in the creation of a piece is validated by giving the collective legal authorship over the material written and produced.”
On their 30th Anniversary season, Pregones presented Aloha Boricua about the historic Puerto Rican migration to Hawaii, and closed the yearlong celebration with The Harlem Hellfighters on A Latin Beat! Inspired by the story of 16 Puerto Rican musicians recruited to join the all-black regiment of the 369th Infantry during World War I, among them legend Rafael Hernández. (This play is available for research at Centro Archives.) Then a musical play about lice (Fly-Babies/Piojos), the production Rasgos Asiáticos/Asian Traces, and an opera version of La pasión según Antígona Pérez demonstrated just some the diversity Pregones has presented over recently.
The Current Season and Onward
Pregones has just ended a month-long series of concerts March is Music and will soon open its newest musical theater project, Betsy!, in collaboration with Roadside Theater. The musical tells the story of a Bronx jazz singer forced to confront her Spanish Caribbean and Scotch-Irish roots and will feature Bronx-born performer Caridad de la Luz (La Bruja) in one of the leading roles.
The theater’s roots within the neighborhood and community continue to be fierce and vital.
“The beautiful thing that Pregones does and is committed to is to say that theater belongs to everyone equally, everybody deserves to hear their stories told and have access to them,” says Rosal Colón, who credits her mother with the theater’s vitality. “Under the most strenuous, most difficult, most trying of circumstances—ella le busca la vuelta—she will find the way. And maybe she didn’t win one battle but she will move into the next. That spirit is why we are faced with all these new opportunities 36 years after the founding of the theater.”
Vazquez agrees. “[Rolón] has worn and wears many hats including: actor, director, producer, artistic director, advocate, community leader, playwright, musician, and the list goes on,” she says. “She is a model of productivity, quality, and creativity . . . She is not only the mother of Pregones, but also a great role model for her peers and generations to come.”
© Center for Puerto Rican Studies. Published in Centro Voices on 27 March 2015.