Review of the play Sonnets for an Old Century by Jose Rivera
Produced by the Urban Theater Company
Playing through April 24, 2011
By Ruben Santos Claveria
February 17, 2011
When I first entered the Steppenwolf Garage Theater to see a play by Jose Rivera, I heard strange disembodied music or more like ghostly sounds coming from the speakers. These sounds set the mood for the eerie yet mystical journey of watching the play Sonnets for an Old Century, produced by the Urban Theater Company, running through April 24, 2011. The play was written at the end of the twentieth century—2000--seems to embody some of the harrowing stories we hear on the news in Chicago on any given day. We know this city is filled with tragedies and heroism. In “Sonnets” we here the stories of people who lived through these tragedies, and hearing the testimonies of these stories is a form of heroism to me because it breaks a silence of the human condition, with all its alienation and despair.
For ninety minutes we are allowed to visit the lives of many characters, played brilliantly by a talented multi-cultural cast, whose vivid articulation of the stories of their lives leaves us as an audience feeling like host of angels bearing witness to so much frustration, angst, and despair. It reminded me of walking through the Holocaust Museum in Skokie, watching videos of many people telling harrowing stories of struggle and survival. These many, often nameless characters, are only connected by the fact that one spirit character with a notebook is recording in a collective book, the importance of these characters lives.
Madrid St. Angelo’s directing creates performances that are riveting, and full of intensity. These actors portraying voices lost in the limbo of the post-twentieth century afterworld give the audience a glimpse of the otherworldly spoken powerfully in the form of magical realism.
While watching “Sonnets,” I couldn’t help but think of the best of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, or Edgar Lee Master’s Spoon River Anthology. Those two works, and Rivera’s play, tell the stories of people lost since passed away. Some people who believe in ghosts will say that ghost appear to try to find redemption from sins, or to seek justice for an injustice.
I grew up in the gritty parts of Chicago, surrounded by impoverished people, mostly Latinos, and I know that “Sonnets” is giving voice to the voiceless, or the undeserved of society, the very poor. I left the theater feeling so glad that I watched it, being another witness to the hard truths that we need to tell as human beings, in order to find healing in therapy. “Sonnets” is not unlike sitting in group therapy, letting people’s hurt have their way with you until the healing starts. I think that is why so many people pray, which is to try to get an angel involved in our lives to give us a sense of redemption. In the film It’s a Wonderful Life, we hear all about George Bailey’s life told through a mystical voice, leaving us in tears, because we hear people’s hopes and prayers for a better world. In George Bailey’s life, like the characters in “Sonnets,”we as an audience go from hope to despair then back to hope again. “Each man’s life touches so many other lives,” Clarence, the guardian angel, tells George.
It is true that too much reality can make us jaded, yet being exposed to some realism also makes us more human and down to earth. I saw myself in the characters in “Sonnets.” I saw my Puerto Rican and Guatemalan yearnings and hopes. I saw my troublesome relationships and all the love I had in this world. In the end, “Sonnets” may not help us find connection with each other on the planet, but it points the way toward unity, redemption, healing, sacrifice, fraternity, equality and justice. We want to be better people because of it. It makes me want to keep writing letters to www.Congress.org in hopes of being the voice of the voiceless and the disempowered. Just like the plays The Diary of Anne Frank and West Side Story, makes us want to fight prejudice, injustice, and war-making, “Sonnets” made me want to a kinder, gentler human being. As a gay person living with HIV, it’s hard to find people you can trust with your innermost feelings. Rivera shared the innermost feelings of many people like me with “Sonnets.”
Jose Rivera, being a Puerto Rican American like me, gives me hope that talent from that tiny little island in the Caribbean can be heard and can make a difference. Last December, I bought U.S. postage stamps with Julia De Burgos on them. I was proud to see a stamp given to a Puerto Rican poet like De Burgos who lived a terrible short life, filled with frustration and beauty. I mailed the stamps with my Christmas cards, in hopes to spread the word about Julia and her lovely poems. The title “Sonnets” makes us think of poetry. The only things that united these characters in this production of Rivera’s play are the costumes which all had painted glitter on them, and the shadowy screens filled with cosmic light beams. At the end of the play, the audience is allowed to leave a note or a name of someone you care for that might have passed on. I wrote on my leaf, “To those who have departed into glittery light. Peace and Poetry.” We need a spiritual support group like the one that “Sonnets” suggests. We need those stories given voice, brilliantly and powerfully. We need more poetry in our lives. I leave you with a line by William Carlos Williams, a Puerto Rican-English American poet, who wrote appropriately:
It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.
By Ruben Santos Claveria
Peace Activist and Poet
Read my book of poems for free at:
Ruben Santos Claveria
3345 W. Hollywood Ave.
Chicago, IL 60659
773 642-6019 (cell)