Interview: Cándido Tirado, Puerto Rican Playwright

Puerto Rican playwright Cándido Tirado has put a play together that drags the mind to think outside the box in Fish Men. It’s a comedic drama that plays out on a hot summer day in New York City’s Washington Square Park, and it’s about a group of urban chess hustlers that come together with each of them dealing with languished issues that are portrayed in a clearly and factual as well as eloquently angered manner, its touching, heartfelt and intelligent.

I had an opportunity to speak with Mr. Tirado and in our conversation he expressed, among other things, his passion for the world to get angry at issues that affect us all. As he put it, “The world has cancer and has no health insurance.” He is a passionate Boricua who has followed his calling and thereby a true inspiration to us all. He’s an NYFA Award winner (4 times); he mentors, teaches and co-writes with his wife of 25 years, Carmen Rivera.

Tell me about some of your career hurdles.

The career itself is a career where white men can make a living. As a Latino writer it’s tough. I want to move an audience and get them upset about the realistic issues we deal with as a society.

You did a fantastic job. The character of Howard Witt (Ninety-Two) brought tears to my eyes in his depiction of genocide and his painful journey in having survived it; Raul Castillo (Rey Reyes) and his story of having survived the Guatemalan massacre was depicted with pain, grace, anger and frustration. The whole cast captured their roles and delivered drama very convincingly.

I love to hear that. That means a lot to me. I wanted to write about the horrible things that have happened. A lot of research and craft goes into putting something like this together. The information is factual and it’s a challenge for any writer. And putting this information into a play that lasts two hours and 10 minutes and making it sound convincing is a challenge. I don’t want people to go home and say, “oh, I saw this nice play!” No. These issues have happened and continue to happen. Take the immigration issue in this country, at any moment it could lead to genocide. Someone can just push a button and most people will go along with what they are told to think. I try to reverse that type of thinking in my play.

Ninety-Two said in the play, and it’s a phrase that will stay with me forever, “Anything that narrows the world’s mind to one thought, I have a problem with.” Where did that come from?

I wrote it. When I was doing my research about genocide and massacres, it was evident that these perpetrators had only “one thought.” To kill, and the same not be questioned. There was no room for their own personal feelings, no compassion no time to stop and say, “this is a human life, I can’t do this.” Their minds were narrowed; one thought embedded in mind and that’s the fuel that drove them. Another example would be religious extremist with their “narrowed thought” of “Kill, they must be exterminated.”

Has anyone in your career ever made you feel like you wouldn’t make it?

Myself. Artist tend to be overly sensitive, you second guess yourself, lack of motivation and rejection. Outside of that, I am a Black Puerto Rican and I have had to deal with racism within my own people. Further, from all the playwrights of my generation, I was the last one produced but I am the only one here. But I am pretty competitive. However, we need more people of color to get into production. I believe there is amazing talent out there that’s not being given the right opportunity to rise.

Consequently, my wife and I spend a lot of time working with young actors and we play a great part in forwarding the message of staying relevant.

How do you deal with bad press?

It’s upsetting. Some critics misinterpret the message being portrayed. Fish Men play isn’t’ about stereotypes; and I had some bad reviews that mentioned untruths and mentions of stereotypes. Fish Men has a Latino that works as a banker, that’s not a stereotype; I have a serious Black Man who has the consciousness of the world, when do you see that on tv? I have a Jewish guy who’s not a victim or going crazy about the holocaust; again, no stereotype! I have a Native American guy who’s angry about what they did to his people; he’s not chanting he’s not drunk, Again; no stereotype. There’s an argument here about dramaturgy. There is a big fight going on, one part of it is of spiritual integration of broken people where they find healing and the other (disintegration) where people are left broken. From the integration the audience gets this great feeling.

Hopefully they say to themselves, as you said Madeline; “I am taking this with me” and THAT’S WHAT I LIKE TO WRITE ABOUT. A holocaust survivor came to see the play and he said to me, and I quote; “How can you be so sensitive to so many cultures?” I could not answer him; I started to cry and I could not answer his question. In our conversation I learned that he was a survivor and that he went through this horrible experience in his life but HE FOUND A WAY TO PUT HIMSELF BACK TOGETHER. I am in line with that very same idea; to write a play and leave my audience with a sense of power. I understand that I am going to take hits for that by the critics. It is however my intent to integrate the audience in a moving way. – Its real-life theater.

Your wife Carmen Rivera is also a writer. How do you manage your career and your marriage?

Well, there is no separation for us, not in our marriage nor work. We critique each other’s work and we demand honest opinions from each other. She’s very successful. Three of the five biggest hits in New York have been hers. She wrote La Lupe, La Gringa, Co-wrote Celia Cruz. We are always working, but our relationship comes first.

Cándido, as a playwright, what has been the most important story you’ve told?

For me, is this play; Fish Men. The play has the same momentum of society’s current reality. Are we going to continue in the destruction of our planet, environment and society? Are we going to enslave people for industries? Or, are we going to harmonize as a whole and make things better? We only have one world. Although it’s an unfortunate reality, we do live in a predatory society with powerful corporations and margin driven businesses that are devouring our humanity. Fish Men, in my opinion makes the whole world responsible for bringing the world back to full health. I am extremely happy with the results, with the 300 audience members that give us a standing ovation every evening, for Teatro Vista and the Goodman Theater for this great opportunity and I trust that this play will have a long life.

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