Playwright/director Allen Davis III, who founded the Playwrights Unit at Puerto Rican Traveling Theatre, died in August.
It’s only fitting to be writing about Allen for a TCG publication, since we boomeranged into each other’s lives after I had fingered through the yellowed pages of a Dramatists Sourcebook that had survived a million spring cleanings. I spotted his name in the Development Opportunities section and recall finding it odd the person in charge of the Puerto Rican Traveling Theatre’s Playwrights Unit was named Allen Davis III. Didn’t sound Puerto Rican.
Anyway, I left a message for the guy with the numbers after his name and he called me right back. And, just like that, my life with the Puerto Rican Traveling Theatre began. More importantly, my life with Allen began. Every week for four years I sat around a table critiquing a unit member-playwright’s play. We all took our turns, as many as 12 of us, hands moving like crazy when we talked. Allen would always go last, the punctuation at the end of a long sentence, that somehow, some way, made it all make sense. His critiques were at once gentle and prescriptive, medicine that went down smoothly, with no nasty aftertaste.
He brought his full heart and vast intellect to my work. A stand-alone monologue he helped me with ended up in a collection published by Simon & Schuster. And the full-length I wrote during my tenure at the Unit won some nice awards. When a bunch of us decided to start a company, the Dramatic Question Theatre, Allen agreed to be part of it. Immediately we had some street cred. I mean, Allen Davis III, had done some stuff: U.S. Marine, Korean War veteran, B.A. from Syracuse University, M.F.A. from Yale, member of New Dramatists, co-founder of the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas, Yaddo and McDowell Colony Fellow, NEA grant recipient, and the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Hispanic Organization of Latin Actors (HOLA) for his teaching and writing, just to name a few things. We didn’t have those types of credentials, but Allen joined us anyway.
He was like that, you know. I think that’s a big part of why we loved him. Instead of a big-time career as a stage director for himself, he advocated for diversity and inclusion of other voices in the theatre, back when it was miles away from fashionable, before there was money or prestige in it. It was a decision, I expect, that cost him in innumerable and immeasurable ways. At a time when Latinx playwrights were mostly adrift, Allen had founded the Playwrights Unit at PRTT. And suddenly there was a place to meet, share work, discuss playwriting, and simply be in community with each other. A lot of talented playwrights came out of that Unit, including Eduardo Gallardo, José Rivera, Candido Tirado, Carmen Rivera, Edwin Sanchez, and Desi Moreno Penson, to name just a fistful. Because of Allen, I get to affix my name to that illustrious roster. Later, as a DQT member-playwright, Allen continued to advance diversity in the theatre by helping our playwrights take their next professional steps; these included Maria Elena Torres, Pedro Antonio Garcia, Noemi de la Puente, and Anna Capunay. (Thanks to Allen, I can affix my name to this illustrious roster too.)
Allen was never ambitious to be a big man of the theatre, which of course made him a big man in and out of the theatre. Allen lived his best life because he stuffed it with friendships, gratitude, appreciation, humor, and compassion. He’s dearly departed, but he left behind the recipe for how we can each be the best versions of ourselves. Which is such an Allen thing to do. It really is. We will miss you, Allen, but not today; today we’ll remember you. We’ll remember you and smile.
I’ll smile too, ignoring the fact I compose this tribute with balled fists, which is the way South Bronx boys grieve. As with even our best plays, the curtain drops on our best people. A simple and delicate truth I’d like to punch square in the jaw.
Michael Mejias is executive director of Dramatic Question Theatre.