In José Rivera’s play Marisol, a band of guerrilla angels has decided that God is an old, ineffectual buffoon who, for the greater good of the universe, must be assassinated. Angel emissaries are sent to Earth to recruit soldiers for the coup. Human beings can either join the revolution in the heavens or endure the apocalypse on Earth. When forced to choose, Marisol, a stressed-out New York City copy editor, decides to keep her feet on the ground. And gets a front row seat to Armageddon.
Thus in one bold stroke of imagination, José Rivera connects heaven and Earth, spirituality and survival, the fantastic and mundane, drapes it in mystery and delivers it to the stage as one grand multi-layered metaphor for the human condition.
“Magic realism” is the term most often used to describe Rivera’s flights of fancy. Indeed, Rivera’s work has become almost synonymous with the term—a term often used very loosely to describe work trafficking in the mystical, enchanted or just plain bizarre. But Rivera himself uses a simpler term to characterize his writing. He calls it “the truth.”
One tool in the box
“Sometimes I’m sorry I ever came across the ‘magic realism’ label,” Rivera admits. “I just think of it as an interesting approach to theatre—another way to illuminate a character’s inner state. Magic realism is an extra tool in the box, an incredibly effective and poetic method of accessing a character, of getting at the truth.”
The truth wears different faces in different cultures, however. For scientifically advanced, technologically savvy Americans, casual conversations with angels are not exactly an everyday occurrence. But in cultures that are more attuned to the spiritual side of existence, things like communication with the dead—things that fall outside the comfortable realm of logic and reason—are part of the everyday ritual of living, and hence more real. According to Rivera, what people believe and what they are willing to accept has everything to do with their notion of truth.
Born in Puerto Rico, Rivera, 37, moved to the United States when he was four, but has always remained connected to his culture through his family and his art. Magic realism is not an oxymoron, insists Rivera, or a way of artificially exaggerating everyday experience to make it seem more magical than it already is—magic realism is simply a powerful way to communicate deeper human truths, truths that do not tend to get explored in your garden-variety, kitchen-sink, television realism.
“As far as I’m concerned, everybody is a magic realist,” Rivera insists. “We all think magically when we sleep. In our dreams there are monsters and angels. Everybody has them. In my work, the internal psychology of the characters is just reflected onstage, which is not all that original either. It’s the same thing Shakespeare did when he used a thunderstorm to reflect the fury of King Lear.”
Learning how to use these methods effectively is the key. In 1989, Rivera and seven other writers spent two weeks at the Sundance Institute studying with the greatest magical realist of them all, Gabriel García Márquez. There he learned that he was not alone in his conviction that magic realism was a largely misunderstood genre, grounded more in truth than fantasy.
“Working with Gabriel García Márquez confirmed a great deal for me,” Rivera says. “When I first read his novels I had a tendency to think of them as allegory. But according to García Márquez, there isn’t a single thing is his novels that is meant to be metaphorical or fantastic or magical. He says that it is all real, and that he is just reporting his experience of life. Now I read his books entirely differently.”
Indeed, the term “magic realism” was first concocted by American literary scholars to describe the work of Latin-American writers such as García Márquez, Alejo Carpentier, Jorge Amado, Jorge Luis Borges and Carlos Fuentes, all of whom tap into a texture of existence seemingly more exotic and meaningful than that recognized by busy Americans. Rivera himself also cites novelists Thomas Mann and Günter Grass as influences, and insists that all aspects of life are magical if looked at from the right perspective.
Dangling from the rafters
“It’s all in the details,” maintains Rivera. “If you choose the details of everyday life carefully enough, and examine them with enough clarity, they can seem magical on their own. Like García Márquez says, the human condition is so absurd, and people are so outrageous, that insane things happen on a daily basis. All you really have to do is record them.”
As an example, Rivera tells a story he once heard about a man in a small Puerto Rican village who committed suicide by hanging himself. When word spread around town that the body was still dangling from the rafters inside his house, everybody in the village wanted to get a peek at the body. People began lining up outside the man’s house, patiently waiting their turn, as if strolling through a dead man’s living room were some sort of amusement park ride. Some people went to the back of the line to get a second look. For others, once was enough. But the body was not cut down until everybody in the village had the chance to stare straight into the face of death.
“The story doesn’t sound like something that could really happen, but it did,” Rivera explains. “I love it because it says something about the way the culture approaches death, and if you tell the story the right was, it can have those extraordinary qualities that people associate with the work of magic realists.”
But as a matter of principle, Rivera still resists being labeled, and is wary of being stereotyped as a conjurer of otherworldly strangeness.
“In the 1970s, Puerto Rican theatre clichés ran more along the lines of drug dealers, pimps, murderers and child molesters. That’s changed now, but I’d hate to see it get to the point where people are disappointed if they don’t see any flying angels or chicken sacrifices.”
It hasn’t happened yet, and Rivera is certainly willing to ride his current wave of success, but he can easily see how the magic realist label might become a limitation for him in the future. Again, his mentor García Márquez provided him with a few clues as to what may lie ahead for him as an artist.
“When I read Love in the Time of Cholera, I was actually disappointed because it was such a realistic novel. But that was a direction in which García Márquez felt he had to grow.” Like any writer, Rivera wants to grow as well, but he refuses to be limited by other people’s expectations of how he ought to write.
Besides, says Rivera, much of his work isn’t all that outrageous anyway. Take Tape, Rivera’s entry in the 10-minute shorts category at this year’s Humana Festival of New Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville. Part of Rivera’s collection of six “children’s stories for adults” called Giants Have Us in Their Books, Tape considers the possible moral consequences of forcing people after they die to listen to a tape-recording of all the lies they told throughout their life.
“There is only one twist in Tape that you could call magical,” says Rivera. “If you believe the twist, you get to take the trip.”
If you don’t, he says, you might as well stay home.
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