By: Elaine Del Valle
I have been performing my autobiographical 90 minute solo play for about four years now. In that time it went from winning small festivals to rave reviews, regionally and then off Broadway. When the New York Times called it a “Triumph”, there was a certain confidence that washed over me and made theatre’s little pay feel like I had banked millions over.
There is no argument that the story of “Brownsville Bred” is that of a Latina coming of age. There have been many a non-believer…those that felt “how could any other audience get it?” or the better question for those artistic directors and theatre decision makers “How can I get my (non-hispanic) audience to want to be in those theatre seats?”
Those artistic believers, who went onward and with bravery into full productions, I thank them and am so proud to say, they never lost a dime and more than money…they expressed a great accomplishment, and pride in the faith that they put in both the play and their audiences.
Those producers and audiences were believers. They believed that every human being has a sense of struggle with their past, with their circumstances, with their environment…They conquer and they laugh. They want to be happy and they want to root for success. People who thought they knew me saw the play and felt “I’ve never really known you at all?”, while those who had never met me felt as if they had known me for their entire lives.
After thinking I had seen them all, then came school performances.
The play, based on my childhood has reaped many rewards but none more than in its performances within schools.
It was never my idea. It started with teaching professionals who found their way to my play as avid theatre goers but later felt compelled to share it with their students… The students that had much in common with the humble beginnings of this Brownsville Brooklyn born Hispanic ghetto girl as well as the students who thought that they’d have nothing in common with her and yet found so much.
Environment, relationships, challenges and growth exist in every human circumstance, and finding this common ground find us all in a wonderful place…one where all teens, and adults of all ages strive to be…a place of… belonging.
There has never been a school that I did not enjoy performing at. A large audience at New York City LaGuardia High School of the Performing Arts was one of the first. They made for a loud and excited group in a theatre that was bigger than many Broadway houses…The Drama teacher invited me. Before I took stage, she announced to her students “This is an example of doing it all…You can write it, you can perform it, you can produce it!” Hearing those words before taking stage made the nerves that usually center in my heart quiet in comparison to the chills that coursed up and down my limbs.
There were kids of all backgrounds. Teens who were already pursuing a career that I only started to dream was possible in my early twenties…
At the end of the show, a standing ovation. I have received many a standing O, but this one had a certain specialness that I cannot begin to explain.
Many other high schools and colleges have come after that school…All of which have been absolutely the best moments of my career.
After one such other performance at the Ethnic Pen Annual Conference of the BayShore School District on BayShore Long Island, I thought “nothing could top this”…This because the district is one of a very few that falls in the middle of both a very affluent and a very poor community. It is a place where black and white and rich and poor gather, but understand quite clearly the divide that still exists. After the performance those kids seemed to feel united. It felt better than I had ever felt before.
Just after that performance, I was fielding invitations from other schools from both East and West of the city. It seemed many other district personnel was in house to witness the student response. One such request came from a school called The North Side Charter BELIEVE School in Brooklyn. BROOKLYN, the borough from where I came… I did not know what to expect, but I never expected what I got.
As I entered the building with my stage manager, we had to be escorted by security up to the office. There was a young hispanic girl in tears. Her mother spoke in my native “Spanglish” and asked the 15 year old, “Who taught you to kiss a boy?” The threat of punishment and being transferred from the school all told and seemed wrapped in the clench of the Mother’s fist holding back from the slap I thought inevitable. As the Mom of a former teenager and playing a teenager on stage, I wanted to say “Human Nature…Stay. Don’t leave! Watch my show…with your daughter…and know that she has every opportunity in this great country and so do you!”
Getting to the auditorium stage for set up, I kept thinking about that one girl and her Mom. Thinking she may be the only Latina in this school. This play could really hit home for her. The mother would see herself in my mothers character and she would feel her own importance. Her anger would be replaced by confidence in her daughters abilities. I wanted to shake it but I couldn’t.
As the kids began arriving, from back stage I could only hear the chatter of the every day teen as I did my breathing exercises that precede my every performance.
In the first moments of my play, a 90 second film of the old neighborhood (Brownsville Brooklyn) plays with the scrolling definition of what Brownsville is according to Wikipedia. The stats in bold typeface, are meant to hit home as the facts..the lack of expectation or faith. In short it says everything that we are and nothing that we can be. The film ends with my handwriting letter by letter, and spelling out, “But this is my story…I was Brownsville Bred and I will not be defined.”
I am usually backstage watching these words scroll and absorbing the relevance of being living proof that otherwise exists…But in the NorthSide Charter Believe School, it was different. There I had the unique pleasure of listening to the kids all together, as if they were being orchestrated to do so…Their chatter turned to song. They were singing the words to the popular spanish song that plays during my video. It occurred to me that most of them were Hispanic. They all became that girl I wanted to be there front and center!
I was on emotional overload and the responsibility that usually washes over me before first step onto stage..The one to myself, my community and to the underdogs of the world that the show represents was replaced by a PRIDE that is usually earned at the end of the show…The kind that grows gradually throughout the performance…when you’ve had them laughing, crying and in complete silence…For the first time I was not feeling any pressure to earn that. For the first time, I felt the benefit of the doubt…I was Home and I became a “Believe”r!
Later, I asked the head of athletics, who had invited me to perform at The NorthSide Charter Believe School, how she came to the earlier BayShore High School performance. It was to my amazement that she said “No, I saw you a few years ago, at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, while you were self producing. I saw it twice there and it stayed with me!”
This will forever stay with me!