– Luis Caballero arrives, wearing a wool scarf coiled around his neck. The morning, April 3rd, was unseasonably cold. He is wired with energy for our interview in the chilly, white-walled basement rehearsal room of GALA’s Tivoli Theatre in Columbia Heights. In awe of this multitalented powerhouse from New York City, who has written and is directing his own play, DC-7: The Roberto Clemente Story, I come prepped to talk about Clemente, El Magnifico, “The Great One,” who played for the Pittsburgh Pirates, and in 1973 was the first Latino elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. –
I start by telling Caballero, a native son of Puerto Rico, how I enjoyed last June’s GALA musical hit, Puerto Rico…..¡Fua!. This riotous send-up, which he co-directed with Hugo Medrano, earned a Helen Hayes nomination for 2012 Outstanding Ensemble Award, Resident Musical.
In contrast, Caballero’s DC-7 script places an intense spotlight on the racism that Roberto Clemente, a baseball superstar, faced in the 1950s and 1960s. Here was this great athlete, with a phenomenal right arm, touted by his fans as not only one of the greatest right fielders in baseball history, but also a slugger who achieved a record-breaking 3,000 hits. In addition, he was a sensitive human being who cared deeply about people, who were suffering. Sadly, this super-talented humanitarian endured heartbreaking discrimination in America. Why relive it?
I am already learning that Caballero is humbly grateful, unassuming, easy to talk to, and has a deep-baritone, fun-loving laugh. I ask:
How relevant is Clemente’s story today? Haven’t we, as a nation, come a long way?
He, tells me a personal story that says it all. After a late off-Broadway rehearsal of DC-7 in New York City, he and Puerto Rican actor Modesto Lacén, cast as Clemente, agreed to share a taxi. “Modesto stepped into the street and raised his arm and three taxis passed,” Caballero says. “Not one would stop. So I said, ‘Let me do it. You stand back.’ Immediately, a taxi stopped. At that moment, I told Modesto. ‘This is exactly what Roberto Clemente went through.’ There was fear there because Modesto is darker-skinned than I am,” Caballero explained.
Why are you so obsessed with telling the Roberto Clemente Story?
Roberto Clemente broke barriers as a black Latino, who spoke Spanish and had a language barrier in the U.S. Yet Roberto Clemente was the first black Latino baseball player, who achieved, not just national, but international recognition. He was elected to the National Hall of Fame. There had been Afro-American Jackie Robinson (in the 1940s and 1950s), who played for the Brooklyn Dodgers (“42,” the biopic about his life, debuts in movie theaters, April 12). Robinson broke the color line; but Clemente opened the door for Afro-Latinos coming after him in Major League Baseball (MLB). Also Clemente was a Civil Rights activist. So he became an icon for Puerto Ricans and over time, for all Latinos, because he didn’t mince words. He spoke out for equal rights.
When I was younger, I studied method acting in New York. Would you call Modesto Lacén a method actor?” (Right away, “organic” becomes a key word in this interview.)
I talk a lot to my actors about organic acting. (He smiles.) I like to experiment. When it comes to directing, I break the rules for a sense of reality. I have my own style.”
Did you ever play baseball?
“Not on a professional team. But in Puerto Rico, by instinct we play baseball. By instinct I mean I never saw a game in my life as a kid, but, like Clemente, I played baseball with guava sticks and tin cans. We used whatever we had. It is part of our culture. So there’s a lot of me that I have written into this play. In that Act I scene, I wrote what I went through– playing barefoot. (Caballero is laughing all through this with deep enjoyment of a warm memory.)
Let’s get into drugs. (Caballero roars at this.) There have been so many steroid scandals in the last 10 or 15 years over the abuse of performance enhancing drugs in international sports, even the all-American sport of baseball. So what about Clemente? Was he clean?
He was clean. No drugs. Nothing bad. That was pure heart. With Clemente the power in his performance had to do with vocation and love of the game. I believe he was what he was. This amazing person, a father and husband. But you are right. The game of baseball has changed in the last couple of years.
(We are interrupted by someone who comes to check on the heater because it is cold in the basement. But our discussion is heating up.)
This play has already has been acclaimed Off-Broadway and in Puerto Rico. You wrote the first draft about six years ago to showcase the memories of those closest to Roberto Clemente, who died in the DC-7 plane crash, while delivering relief supplies to the people in earthquake devastated Nicaragua in 1971.
Yes, actually I got the idea in 2003 and thought about it for a long time, while doing films and other projects. Then when I finally got back to DC-7, I wrote it from three points of view. Vera, his widow, who is still alive, talked to me. Then the sportscaster and Clemente’s close friend, Ramiro, told me what happened. Then Matino, one of Roberto’s brothers. Each has a story of how to say good-bye to him and they tell it to the audience.
Starting with a funeral creates great suspense because, as with some Shakespeare plays, you know the ending; yet you want to know how it happened. But why is DC-7 a musical?
I asked myself: Why not? I didn’t want to just write a play. I wanted to incorporate music to express the characters’ feelings, their moments in the journey. We are always singing. We sing when we are in love, when we are crazy; we sing in the shower, we sing in the car.
So I composed music to create the sound that was ours, of our culture to make this a drama about Roberto Clemente with music. From the beginning, we hear this unique mix that comes from Puerto Rico: La Bomba from Africa, the Plena from Taino tribal music, and the Salsa, that is Caribbean. With the help of the musical arrangements from Harold Gutiérrez, and Didier Prossaird, who leads the salsa band, Sin Miedo, we hear the unique mix from Puerto Rico, that comes from many nationalities and cultures.
Music was in the Clemente family?
I think music is in all Latinos. Yes, Roberto used to sing, dance and write poetry. In the play, I am using poetry he wrote himself.
Did you originally envision a larger-scale musical, like a Kander and Ebb’s Chicago, because the man’s talent, heart and soul were so big?
People often ask me that. I never saw it like a big-scale, vaudeville-Broadway musical. I don’t envision Clemente as two hours of jumping. I wanted to tell Clemente’s journey. I wanted to present something more visceral. The music is important but there is something about the lines, the dialogue and the monologues which needs to be heard.
I am very aware of my circumstance as a Latino in the United States. About coming from a poor bi-racial family, the language limitation, the upbringing, the suffering. And I always wondered how Roberto managed himself in situations where he was not able to manifest what he was feeling and thinking. So when I sat down with real people who knew him, like his brother, his friend and his wife, it became– wow! different because what these characters say comes from the heart. I didn’t want the music to erase that.
You talk about your style as being “organic.” To what extent is the scene “La Maleta,” (The Suitcase) organic? The Ensemble sings these strange lyrics: “Roberto’s suitcase is on fire. Could it be the engineer’s or did the mayor lend it?” It’s in Act I. It’s surreal.
“La Maleta” is the scene when Roberto is leaving Puerto Rico for the first time. It is surreal and one of my favorites. I’m also a film maker. This play has influences from film-makers, like Luis Buñuel. We come from a place in the Caribbean that has magic-realism.
The La Maleta scene is about a cultural ceremony that really happens. This is the first time Clemente is really leaving his town, a big event in our culture. Clemente says he doesn’t have a suitcase. Maybe a family member has one he can take. Or maybe a neighbor will lend him one. It used to happen that your whole family and all the neighbors took you to the airport. Sometimes people didn’t have cars so a neighbor drove the kids and the entire family to say good-bye.
It happened to me when I left Puerto Rico for New York in 1991. I didn’t have a suitcase. So someone gave me one, and my sisters and friends brought me to the airport. It’s a big celebration. That’s what the chorus is singing to Clemente. “Could it be the engineer’s or did the mayor lend it?” No one knows who gave him the suitcase. But they give it to him. That’s what is going on.
That’s beautiful. It sounds symbolic. And the fire in the suitcase is Roberto’s passion?
Exactly. Because it’s a new beginning. Now Roberto has signed a contract to play baseball for Montreal (the Royals), for the Dodgers in Brooklyn. Now he’s leaving Puerto Rico. It’s the first time he takes a seat in an airplane. The first time he confronts a different culture. Luis Salgado, the choreographer, who did some choreography for In the Heights on Broadway, and choreographed the DC-7 Off-Broadway production, helps a lot with the dancing.
Latinos really feel connected to this scene. It’s the whole process of leaving the Mother Country. The suitcase has the symbolism of the road, the journey ahead. People (in the audience) love this one.
Can you clarify the Act II headliner song “Godspell Negro Baseball,” that isn’t so filled with joy? It’s written as a poem, yet it’s a prayer? Is it set to music? And how does it fit in?
That’s the beginning of Act II. That poem later became the lyrics and music that are mine. I wrote that poem when I had this interview with Vera, his widow. I found out from his brother, Matino, and his wife that Roberto used to write poetry. Vera told me a lot that I had to get into his journey through life. The problems he went through because he was black and didn’t speak English at first. All the humiliation, the bigotry he went through.
In that scene, I wanted to create the gospel church thing. (Caballero starts singing it.) At the same time, the song is a prayer for himself and for black players that have been sacrificed, bullied, humiliated and attacked because of their color. Then when you hear the narrator, who speaks in English, to make sure everyone understands, it’s like you’re in church with the preacher preaching as well as narrating a baseball game. So you see Clemente praying and playing ball at the same time.
April 18, 2013 – May 26, 2013
GALA Hispanic Theatre
3333 14th Street, NW
Tickets: $20 – $42
Thursdays thru Sundays
Yeeees, for Puerto Ricans, this is a Jesus journey. Spiritual. Clemente is a Messiah who wins baseball games. Visually, the lighting is in red in that one scene. This scene is really about Clemente’s spiritual journey. I wrote it in the New York subway.
You wrote that song in the subway? You were on a journey in the underground? You were on a train hurtling through the dark moving with the rhythm of the train?
Yeah! I was going boom, boom, ta-boom. Dum, dum-da-Baaaseball Nayyygro. (Singing full volume. I can imagine his resonant baritone in the New York subway.) And I had my recording machine going. I am not trained in music. So I can’t write it down. My mama used to be a singer and she taught us to sing and write but not…(Caballero continues singing.)
But not to notate musical notes?
Right. I’m not technically trained. I have to get it recorded or I will forget the melody. I get it down by singing the lyrics, the melody, and the instruments. Boom, boom, ta-boom. (Caballero’s laugh is infectious and I start laughing.)
Your mother was a gospel singer?
My mama was a radio singer in Puerto Rico. Abeautiful soprano. I come from a bi-racial family. I love my African heritage. My black mother, who was a medium, saw the future. An African. So I always have that connection. She was a very spiritual woman who descended from the people brought to Puerto Rico for slavery.
My great grandmother was sold in France. My grandmother was born in Puerto Rico in 1898 when the Americans took over from Spain. They used to work for the sugar cane people and I use that knowledge in my play. So I come from a family, especially my black side, that I love, that is about praise, songs, and spiritual connection. To go beyond what is real. I think that is one of the most beautiful things that my mama gave me. I think Clemente was very spiritual. Clemente and I have that in common.
That’s great information that really opens up that scene. It’s more than just a bridge from one scene to the next. It’s organic.
It’s totally organic. I didn’t just want to present Roberto Clemente, the great athlete from what I read in books. When I sat down with real people who knew him, like his brother, his friend and his wife, it became a different thing because it came from the heart. From the different experiences they had with Clemente. The music came from the pain, tears, for those memories that made me say ‘Wow.’ So that scene shows the pleasure of winning.
But then you see the other side. This vulnerable human being fighting against the whole world, against the system. So I was very clear about what I wanted to say.
What shocked me from reading your script was his daily duel against discrimination. What you show at the end of Act I is heartbreaking. Kids today don’t realize what we went through, on both sides of the color line, back then.
Roberto was 20 years old when he moved to the United States in 1954. He was a kid with no English. The same reaction happened inside me too. In Puerto Rico, you are a Puerto Rican, not a race. It’s my nationality! A mix of many different cultures and races: European, African, and native Taino. You’re not constantly reminded of your color.
So when Clemente moved to the U.S., he wasn’t expecting the discrimination he saw against African-Americans. Then when you see in my play how Roberto is attacked physically and mugged in the U.S., and it really happened to him in real life, it’s very shocking and painful.
Wouldn’t it have been easier for Clemente if he had gone to New York with the Brooklyn Dodgers instead of Pittsburgh? Jackie Robinson had already paved a path there. Clemente got his first offer from them before Pittsburgh Pirate drafted him.
No, no. One of Roberto’s friends told me that when Robinson was playing, there were people in the stands who wanted to kill Jackie Robinson. Police used to be in the field with guns to protect him. I don’t know a lot beyond that. But I do know that Clemente played with the Dodgers for a short time, and then the Montreal Royals (in 1954). Both those teams kept him benched. That’s why Clemente in the 1950s wanted to go back to Puerto Rico, until the Pittsburgh Pirates recruited him in 1955.
When Clemente goes with the Pirates, the discrimination seems to be everywhere. Even in the dugout. So that’s why Roberto has the broadcaster, Ramiro, bring him food?
Yes. Ramiro was Clemente’s friend who met him in 1956, when Clemente was already playing with the Pittsburgh Pirates and Ramiro saw how the black players got the bad hotels (when the team traveled). They couldn’t go in “Whites Only” restaurants and had to have food ordered for them. And blacks were forced to sit in the back of the bus and on the back benches in the dugout.
Tell us about Clemente and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
When Clemente discovered Martin Luther King, and met all these other activists for African-Americans, he wanted to become like King, that same voice for the Latinos. Some African American friends of mine love Clemente and tell me: “He belongs to us, Luis.” That death of MLK scene about how people react is very important. When the news that Martin Luther King had been killed came out, Clemente was in Florida, in spring training,. It changed his and his brother’s attitude. In my play, there are four characters on stage that represent the races. Where were they when they heard Martin Luther King was killed? That is the whole question. I added even more symbolism in that scene– of the Pieta, Jesus and Mary. You have to see it to understand what I mean.
Why do family members, Matino and his parents, call Roberto “Momen”?
“Momen” comes from the Spanish word “momento.” Roberto as a child was always saying , “Un momento, un momento!” because he was always in a hurry to get something done and didn’t like being called away. So “Momen” was a family nickname.
Why is the title so important? I don’t think it’s a spoiler to reveal it.
No, not at all. Good question. DC-7 is the airplane that took him away from us. But D and C are also initials for Dorothy Carrington, a real woman with seven kids. The white family that played baseball at home as a team. They cannot afford to attend a live game in the Pittsburgh stadium. So as devoted fans, they watch Clemente play on television.
“Fanatica” is the allegorical character name for DC-7, who represents the millions of fans who loved Clemente. Many reporters in the press corps misunderstood and disliked Clemente because he was quiet, seemed arrogant and spoke with this deep Spanish accent. The press made a big joke out of him. But his fans loved him.
You’ve shared your vision. Now, what’s been your biggest challenge in mounting the production on the stage at GALA in Washington D.C.? A lot of changes made?
Noooooo. No way. GALA is very professional and up to the challenge. I made some changes to add more. The team here wants to make it much better. I like that about them. They want the stage to look beautiful. They want the projections, by New Yorker film-maker, Jorge “Fish” Rodriguez, who uses actual old footage of Clemente playing, to look amazing. They challenge me and I like that. DC-7 has already done very well off-Broadway and in Puerto Rico, and is basically the same.
What about casting Modesto Lacén in that pivotal role of Clemente? I’ve seen pictures of where they look alike. But playing this role has to be deeper than that.
Right. Modesto is from Puerto Rico and it was a dream for him to play Clemente. I had seen Modesto on stage in other productions. He has what few actors have. He is organic as an actor; very “present” in the character.
What do you mean? I think we called it “in the moment” or “letting it happen.” Is that what you mean?
Yes. Modesto is not afraid. By “organic,” I mean he surrenders to the character he is playing. Modesto is very committed to his work, gives 100%. Yes, he worked very hard on the accent. He trained in baseball. He saw all Roberto’s interviews. He read all the books. He flew to places in the U.S. to meet with Roberto’s friends. When you see the videos of the real Clemente, sometimes it’s hard to separate Modesto from Clemente.
Your play is bilinqual, even trilingual. There are scenes in Spanish and French as well as English. Why did you write it in more than one language?
I want the audience to see that this is a realistic journey. At that time in Puerto Rico, people didn’t know English. So in some scenes, I want the characters to speak Spanish in the dialogue. Then in Montreal, French. Then you go into English in Pittsburgh. I didn’t want Clemente in Puerto Rico with people who speak English when they didn’t. It would be disrespectful. I wanted to honor the journey in that way.
Why is it so important to remember Roberto Clemente?
He is important today because of the time. Clemente played baseball because he loved the game. The money came second. Today, sports is more about celebrity and making lots of money. Today, baseball players get millions – $20, $30 million a year. Today, people want to be athletes because they think they will earn a lot of money.
If you compare what Clemente got paid back then and now, it’s nothing. In the past, Clemente played for the game against all odds. For him, the timing was perfect. Society was drastically changing. He was a player at the time of a revolution that he represented with dignity.
I think that at the end of the road, and this is what really matters to me, we need to remember that there have been very good people who represent Latinos with honor and dignity. We are not all drug dealers, murderers. We are baseball players, lawyers, musicians. And not all white people are bad. People need to come and see DC-7: The Roberto Clemente Story because people tend to forget the history.
If Clemente was able to do what he did in the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies, there is no limitation. Why are we complaining that we can do nothing in 2013?
DC-7: The Roberto Clemente Story . A Bilingual Musical Play by Luis Caballero . Music by Luis Caballero and Harold Gutierrez . Directed by Luis Caballero . Produced by the GALA Hispanic Theatre at Tivoli Square . Interviewed by Rosalind Lacy.