Baseball hero Roberto Clemente was once quoted saying: “If you have the chance to make things better for people coming behind you and you don’t, you are wasting your time on earth.” This statement by the first black Latino Hall of Famer (elected in 1973) doesn’t have to be said on stage. Playwright and director Luis Caballero shows us how Clemente hit balls and ran bases as if he didn’t have enough time on earth. He broke down cultural and racial barriers by speaking out as a humanitarian and made a lot of things better.
Call DC-7 an exceptional bio-musical, both for its incredible storytelling style and an experimental freshness imbued with innovative staging, and soaked in its latin musical beats. Overall, it’s an impassioned achievement, another milestone for the GALA Hispanic Theatre.
It’s a memory play that opens with the close of the native Puerto Rican ballplayer’s life. We hear a pilot’s voice crying, “Mayday.” Then the sound of the ocean where the DC-7 plane, loaded with supplies for Nicaraguan earthquake victims, crashed. To begin a play with the ending is a way of saying: ‘Never forget.’
Playwright Caballero reconstructs memories from three points-of-view: Clemente’s older brother, Matino; sports reporter and broadcaster Ramiro; and the love of his life, his wife Vera. If at times, the sequencing of scenes seems illogical and surreal, remember we are hearing the random stream-of-thoughts through the minds of the people closest to Clemente at a funeral. The well-modulated Salsa band Sin Miedo, led by musical director, Didier Prossaird, is elevated on a platform above and behind the back wall, where stadium lights are posted over a baseball diamond. (set by José López Alemán).
Lights come up on Matino, Roberto’s caring older brother, played compassionately by Josean Ortíz, who narrates with warm nuance, telling us about Roberto’s humble beginnings. As a kid, Roberto worked in the sugar cane fields to help his dad, a foreman (Miguel Vásquez), and played baseball with guava sticks and tin cans. Matino addresses Roberto by his nickname, “Momen,”, who always was in a hurry, based on his habit of saying, “Un momento,” (Just a Minute).
In Caballero’s song opener, “¡Canto!” we are thrust into a wholesome, uncorrupted Garden of Eden: “I sing to the palm trees of this land called Boringuen.” The ensemble, filled with the happiness, sing and dance in celebration. Lively hip-swinging, free-spirited choreography by Luis Salgado is supportive with respect.
When the great New York Giant’s African-American player Monte Irvin comes to the isle to play, his name is projected in big yellow letters on the back wall. One of the great ones who left-fielded in the Negro Baseball League until Jackie Robinson broke the color line in the U.S. (in 1947), Irvin was able to join the major leagues with the New York Giants (1949-1955). Now Roberto has a role model to ignite his dream. He wants to transform his love of the game into something greater, simply to become “the best,” Matino tells us.
In the baseball playing scenes, actor Modesto Lacén, as Clemente, whacks imaginary balls (sound effects by Brenden Vierra) and reacts. It’s from the stunned look of awe in Lacén’s eyes that we sense the prodigious power and physical strength foreshadowing later out-of-the-ballpark hits.
The teenage Clemente is discovered by a scout when he plays for the local Santurce Cangrejeros (Crabbers), and drafted to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers, and then, in Canada, for the Montreal Royals. The family and neighbors show up to donate suitcases for the surrealistic Latino ritual of homeland departure. And we hear the exuberant full ensemble deliver in Spanish a show-stopping, “La Maleta,” (“The Suitcase”) with Caballero’s startling lyrics, “Roberto’s suitcase is on fire.” It’s performed wild with joy.
A vibrant Xiomara Rodriguez as Madre brings Clemente’s mother to life. It’s a deeply moving portrayal when she blesses his son’s wedding. Through her and Padre’s brief appearances, we gain insight into Roberto’s habit of asking for their blessing after games. And how he never lost his touch with his hometown. Alexandra Linn enacts a memorable cameo of the empathetic white woman, Dorothy Carrington, or Fanatica, the devoted baseball fan and namesake for the title, DC-7, for her family team of seven children, who play at home.
Another ensemble highlight is the toe-tapping, gospel soul song, “Beisbol Negro” (Black Baseball), that launches Act II, a scene so enjoyable that I wish it had gone on longer. This number is equally fulfilling but with a different kind of passion. For Latinos, Robert Clemente is becoming their savior, more than an embodiment of the American Dream. He is hope for their lives to get better for real. And the fans in the stadiums adore him with a near-religious fervor.
This theme of transformation is like an undertow that has an emotional pull later in the Pieta-like pose, with Matino speaking over the body of Clemente.
Through the worldly-wise eyes of Ramiro, the reporter, played with flamboyant gusto by Ricardo Puente, costumed in dark shades and snappy suits (costumes by Harry Nadal), we catch a glimpse of the pain in Clemente’s journey in the U.S. No matter how brilliantly the baseball icon plays, Jim Crow laws require him to sit at the back of the bus, and segregates him from eating with his white colleagues. Shocked by the clash between those who can and those who cannot, Clemente refuses to submit to second class status. And Ramiro, the journalist with a heart of gold, reaches out to help him.
Through Ramiro’s eyes we see the black hole of bigotry, often darkly funny, the contrast of the modestly reserved Clemente, who never meant to be arrogant. Yet reporters from the gringo press corps do not understand the Spanish language or culture, the graciousness (gracia), the way of returning a compliment.
Far more painful is racism in the 1950s. Through actual videos, we see Clemente hit homeruns out of the ballpark, gallop around bases, make lightning-fast throws and mind-boggling right-fielder catches (projection designer Jorge “Fish” Rodriguez.) Clemente rose from the back bench in the dugout to the top of his game with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Yet Act I ends with one of Lacén’s stellar moments as Clemente stands ramrod straight, like a Marine at attention, and endures racial slurs hurled at him until his fury finally erupts in a fist fight.
By far, the most emotion-packed scene that successfully orchestrates video, live music and performance, is the one which dramatizes Clemente’s reaction to the death of Martin Luther King in 1968. The projections climax with a close-up on the face of Martin Luther King, seeking justice, his soulful eyes expressing pain. Red lighting by Joseph R. Walls bleeds up the back wall as ensemble member Jase Parker slowly walks across the stage apron, singing, “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.” The African-American spiritual reminds us of Clemente’s painful trials as a black Latino trying to fit into a racist society.
King’s death had a profound impact on Clemente and we feel it. Lacén, in his portrayal, shines in his angry delivery of Roberto’s eloquent letter, stating that “The color of truth/Is not to hide in silence/…” Clemente must speak out against injustice. Just as surely as he must act to curb the corruption of the dictator Somoza in Nicaragua.
DC-7:The Roberto Clemente Story
Closes May 26, 2013 – closing changed to May 19, 2013
GALA Hispanic Theatre
3333 14th Street, NW Washington
2 hours with 1 intermission
Thursdays thru Sundays
One last must-mention is Rodriguez’ projection showing us the phenomenal, record-making 3000th hit in 1972. The videos highlight that inspiring highpoint, reinforced on the stage scoreboard. No translation needed for the universal language of numbers. The alternating translations in the surtitles can be confusing at first. But the changes of language reinforce a sense of dislocation. The surtitles could be brighter lit in the opening scenes, however.
What happens when good people die? As a former Pittsburgher, I remember hearing tales of Clemente’s spectacular performance in the 1971 World Series. The Pirates, who were the underdogs, beat the Baltimore Orioles. Never forget Roberto Clemente, the musical tells us, and he will live forever.
Surtitles in English and Spanish depending on the language spoken onstage.
DC-7:The Roberto Clemente Story . Book and Lyrics by Luis Caballero . Music by Luis Caballero and Harold Gutiérrez
Directed by Luis Caballero . Translated by Jeannete González, Richard Marino and Miguel Trelles . Choreography by Luis Salgado . Produced by GALA Hispanic Theatre . Reviewed by Rosalind Lacy