jakub | May 13, 2024

AMERICAN THEATRE | José Rivera and the Family Storm of ‘The Hours Are Feminine’

José Rivera.

José Rivera has drawn on his own biography for his plays before, including in 1983’s The House of Ramón Iglesia, about a young man both running from and learning to appreciate his immigrant family. But it has been a while since the author of such plays as Cloud Tectonics, Another Word for Beauty, and Sonnets for an Old Century has returned to his own youth for inspiration, as he does in The Hours Are Feminine, his new play at Intar Theatre in New York City (performances begin tomorrow).

In this intimate family epic set in 1960, Rivera tells the story of a Puerto Rican family living on Lake Ronkonkoma, a hamlet in Long Island, where they rent a small house from a crotchety Italian American widower. While some characters in the play—especially Evalisse, the young Puerto Rican mother, and Mirella, the daughter-in-law of the Italian landlord—struggle to overcome barriers of language, class, and ethnicity, The Hours Are Feminine might be described as a tragedy with a hopeful ending, as Jaivin, the 5-year-old stand-in for Rivera, takes away a complicated lesson about his adopted home.

I recently spoke to Rivera, who is also directing Hours, about storytelling, masculinity, and why he likes to make things hard for his actors.

ROB WEINERT-KENDT: I remember seeing you around Silverlake in the 1990s, back when you had a ponytail. Are you based in New York now?

JOSÉ RIVERA: I moved back in 2010, after my kids graduated from high school and I had no reason to stay in L.A.

You’ve had a busy film career, but I guess you can write a film anywhere.

The irony is, I’ve done more films since I moved back to New York than I did out there. 

I loved the play on the page; it’s beautiful and surprising, even shocking. It’s billed as autobiographical, and I know that a lot of the details match your biography. But I have to ask, given what happens in the play, how autobiographical it is.

The broad strokes are pretty similar. My parents moved to Long Island in 1960 and my mother didn’t speak any English. My father had been there a year ahead of her, working as a short order cook. Those details are correct. And we did rent a house on the property of this older Italian man named Charlie, and his daughter-in-law became friends with my mom, really her first American friend. They would watch I Love Lucy together, and my mom learned some English that way.

So the setting is all the same. And there was a devastating hurricane that year. But are there scenes in this you’re recreating from memory?

I mean, I was 5, so I don’t remember any dialogue from those days. The conversations are invented, obviously. And the father character is far more eloquent than my real father.

There are some adult conversations that you certainly wouldn’t have been privy to or, even if you had been, would not have understood then.

Exactly. And I didn’t speak a word of English then, so I just created that part—especially the relationships among the Italian characters.

Were you attuned to the racist attitudes toward Puerto Ricans at that age?

A lot of those facts I learned much later in life. My mom had a ridiculously ironclad memory, and she told me all those stories later.

Was that when you were already a writer, looking for stories, or when you were younger?

I was in my 20s and 30s. And my mom never stopped reminiscing, so whether I asked her for a story or not, I was getting a story.

I forget where I read it recently, but someone was saying that every playwright has a play in them that could be called “The House Where I Live.” Could that be a subtitle for The Hours Are Feminine?

My first produced play, The House of Ramón Iglesia, was definitely autobiographical, from my post-college age, and Boleros for the Disenchanted was about how my parents met. So there have been other attempts at a general biography.

I want to ask about the way you handle Spanish and English onstage. Basically, the audience hears fluent English throughout, even when folks are speaking Spanish among themselves, and to uncomprehending English speakers—but when they’re speaking English in the world of the play, they have thick accents and rudimentary grammar.

I wish I could claim that it’s an original device on my part. It was inspired Brian Friel’s play Translations, in which he has the same device: When Irish speakers speak Irish among themselves, what the audience hears is English, but the English-speaking characters onstage don’t understand them. And in my play, the characters who speak a second language speak with a heavy accent.

I was curious about that because the last play I saw at Intar was Vamonos, by Julissa Contreras, which was fully bilingual. Did you ever consider that option?

The ideal production of this would be bilingual. You could do it that way in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where most people are bilingual.

A rehearsal of “The Hours Are Feminine” at Intar Theatre.

One thing you do that’s really interesting is, sometimes when characters are speaking different languages to each other, they say a lot more than they would if they were being understood. It’s almost like they’re mutually monologuing. I haven’t seen the play, but I read those sections as kind of going beyond realism.

Oh, it’s not naturalism in any way. It’s pretty heightened in parts. Especially in Mirella’s scene with Little Anthony—she’s very passionate, and the tenor of that language is very heightened and dense. You sort of have to rely on your actors to make it sound natural, like it’s happening spontaneously.

Forgive my ignorance, but have you directed your own work much before?

It’s relatively new. I’ve directed a few other plays in recent years. I really enjoy it. I’ve had the good luck of work with some great directors—Tina Landau, Lisa Peterson, Mark Wing-Davey, Michael Greif—so I’ve learned a few tricks along the way by watching them work. I think the biggest thing about directing is sheer confidence, and I think that has improved on my side. The more I do it, the better I feel about it, and the more confident I feel.

Along those lines, do you ever feel like the playwright here has handed the director some big challenges? Do you ever wish the writer had made it easier for you as the director?

No, I don’t. In fact, my impulse is always to make it as hard as possible for the actors, because I think that’s the most rewarding work they can do. My impulse is always to challenge them. With this play, there are external challenges; it’s a very intimate space, so that’s a challenge in itself, recreating that backyard on a postage stamp, basically. But I work with some of the same people constantly; half this cast I’ve worked with before. The two leads—the Puerto Rican mother and father [Hiram Delgado and Maribel Martinez]—are new to me, but they were wonderful in the auditions, and sort of a no-brainer to cast.

But are you also hard on yourself as a writer when you’re directing your own work?

I have to say, I’m harder on myself than any director has ever been on me. I will really sweat and strain on the script when I’m directing it to make sure it’s right, whereas if I’m working with a director who’s telling me things, I’m always a little skeptical—like, you have to twist my arm.

I do also want to give a shout out to the designers, who are doing amazing work in a tiny space: Izzy Fields, the set designer; David Remedios, the sound designer; Christina Watanabe, the lighting designer; and Lisa Jordan, the costume designer.

I confess I’m wondering how you’re going to stage a hurricane at Intar.

It’s gonna be a nightmare in tech.

There challenges of this play aren’t just physical, though. The content is pretty rough in some places as well. I wanted to ask about Charlie, the old Italian man, who is as close to a villain as the piece has. Is the challenge there to render him in a fully rounded way, not just as a racist abuser?

Well, you don’t want to let him off the hook. It’s funny: Dan Grimaldi, the actor playing Charlie, will sometimes just call out, “Anyone—please say something nice about Charlie.”

There is that amazing scene where he’s bonding with Fernán, the Puerto Rican dad, about saints and sports, but then it takes a turn.

Well, they share Catholicism, they share baseball—there’s a lot of cultural overlap between the two families, and it all comes together in that scene. It doesn’t end well, but that has nothing to do with their nationalities. It’s their circumstances, and it’s economics.

Charlie also quickly snaps back to full-on racist language.

Because it’s hard for Charlie to be vulnerable. So when he does it, and then it gets slapped in his face, it’s painful. And he just reverts to his old behavior.

The title comes from a beautiful observation about how, in the Spanish language, time is masculine but the hours are feminine. I was also struck by the lessons, good and bad, that Jaivin learns about masculinity throughout—for one thing, his father seems disappointed that his son is not macho but “sensitive.” Was that your story as well?

Yeah, unfortunately. I’m the oldest son, and as the oldest son in a Puerto Rican kind of patriarchy, you’re expected to reflect well on your father’s masculinity; your father wants that macho boy. I wasn’t that boy. My younger brothers all were, so they more than made up for it.

In recent years, I’ve seen your name on more films than plays—The Motorcycle Diaries and On the Road being two prominent credits. What else are you working on?

I recently finished three films. One is about a guy in Paraguay who helps kids make musical instruments out of trash and forms an orchestra. It’s called the Recycled Orchestra, and it’s a real thing. Another film is about the Young Lords. And the third film is based on a novel—Barack Obama’s favorite novel of that year—about a family that takes a cross country trip in pursuit of lost children. It’s called The Lost Children Archive. But mainly I worked on 100 Years of Solitude—I wrote 16 episodes for that Netflix series during the darkest days of the lockdown, when my partner was away, my children were away, my friends disappeared. I had nothing to do for two years except write. Thankfully so, because it kept me from going crazy.

I’ve also written several new plays—and The Hours Are Feminine isn’t one of them. It’s actually fairly old, it just never got produced. I had a new play called Your Name Means Dream, about an older woman being cared for by an AI, that was done at Contemporary American Theatre Festival last year. It’s a two-hander and, as luck would have it, there are four productions of the play coming up in ’24 and ’25. Meanwhile it took 14 years for The Hours Are Feminine to be produced once. You just never know.

Rob Weinert-Kendt (he/him) is editor-in-chief of American Theatre.

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