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Puerto Rican Characters Lend 'Water By The Spoonful' A Splash Of Diversity

Cynthia Levin
Unicorn Theatre

The Unicorn Theatre'sproduction of Water by the Spoonful marks the local premiere of the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama. But the play may be more noteworthy for its meaty, multi-layered characters of Puerto Rican heritage, and the fact that the actors playing them represent ethnic diversity that's rare to see on a Kansas City stage.

Manny Alfaro, the executive director of Hispanic Organization of Latin Actorsrecently told The Huffington Post that he's surprised that, for all the Latino and Latina actors appearing in various media, it’s still common to see them playing stereotypical roles like criminals or housekeepers. That's what makes the new show at the Unicorn remarkable.

Family values

Water by the Spoonful, which won Quiara Alegria Hudes a 2012 Pulitzer Prize, has as its central characters three Puerto Ricans. Actors Keenan Ramos, Dawnnie Mercado, and Alisha Espinosa are playing, respectively: Elliot Ortiz, an injured Iraqi veteran; his recovering addict mother; and his college professor cousin.

Though the play is set in Philadelphia, Ramos and Espinosa explain why their characters' Puerto Rican roots deeply inform them.

"Even though they call Philly home, Puerto Rico's home, you know," Ramos says. "That's where we spend the latter part of the play, Puerto Rico, and it sort of serves as this cleansing for them."

"A lot of the problem I find with putting Latino characters in plays is that they're some version of what Latino is supposed to be," says Espinosa. "And in this play, you get the point that they're people - they just happen to be from Puerto Rico. And it's important to their identity that they're from Puerto Rico. but it could just as easily not be Puerto Rico."

Blessing and a curse

For many years, actors of color have been pigeonholed, if not discriminated against, by theater directors unable or unwilling to stretch their concepts of what a play's characters look like, recalls Dawnnie Mercado, who is third generation Mexican-American.

"What I have found is that it's a blessing and a curse," she says. "Sometimes I'm chosen because I look Hispanic, and then they want me to be a little more ethnic than I actually am, and that's fine. That's okay because that's a part of my people. It may be closer to my grandma than it is to me, but it's a part of me."

Actor Keenan Ramos is African-American, French-Canadian, and Portuguese. He, too, recalls auditions where his ethnicity either worked against him or in his favor.

"I went in to audition for Hamlet and they had their Hamlet in mind, and it wasn't me," says Ramos."I got the comic relief part; I was Rosencrantz. And I'm not blaming race at all. The guy was better. But I think the director had a Hamlet in mind. I'm sounding like I'm blaming it on race, and I'm angry. But it happens, though.

"I played Romeo and had a white Juliet, and kudos for my director casting that in the middle of Kansas when people were a little taken aback by having an interracial Romeo and Juliet."

Looks deceive

Dawnnie Mercado says that, even if she knows a director has a certain type in mind - one who looks dissimilar to herself - it makes her work harder to prove her versatility. That’s what happened when she auditioned to play Lucy in a production of Dracula.

"I did an impeccable English accent, threw real tears on the ground, tore out my heart and got the part. He said, 'You're my Lucy,'" says Mercado. "Sometimes it has to be, 'Take the chip off your shoulder and not just cast me Latina because I am.' Delve into your artistry as an actor and become that person as close as you can." 

Alisha Espinosa is Puerto Rican and says it’s her first time cast as a Puerto Rican character. A second-year student in the graduate acting program at UMKC, she acknowledges the merit of the classics but adds that, today, there are other voices calling out to be heard that can’t help but put more actors of color on the stage.

Race to a finish

"I like to tell people, 'White male playwrights have a head start. We've been doing their plays forever,'" Espinosa says. "Those are the classics; those are the plays we do, and that's fine. But you have to know that the playwrights - the Asian playwrights, African-American playwrights, Hispanic playwrights - there's a race. And you're fifty feet ahead and we're behind. And unless you make it an active part of your mission to say, all right, we're going to produce these kinds of plays, it's just not going to happen."

Even with more playwrights of color writing characters who look like a wide shot of the United States, there’s still a long way to go. A glance at Actors' Equitydemographics shows that Caucasian actors make up 85 percent of the union membership, while only 2.7 percent identify as Hispanic.

'Water by the Spoonful' through May 11 at the Unicorn Theatre, 3828 Main, Kansas City, Mo., 816-531-PLAY.

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