The first thing that leaps to mind when I think of Jorge Ignacio Cortiñas, the playwright responsible for Tight Embrace (along with the plays Sleepwalkers and Blind Mouth Singing, among others) is the first time I met him. We were at an informal reading of a screenplay written by a friend of a mutual friend. After reading the script, we all hung out, enjoyed some liquid refreshment and talked shop. Jorge mentioned a hip-hop theater conference he was helping to organize. In response, I mentioned my own interest in the genre. Three months later, on Jorge’s recommendation, I was flying out to the West Coast to build with some of the best young minds in theater, including (and especially) Jorge himself.
He’s a generous guy, to say the least.
What I remember most about Jorge’s role that weekend was his willingness (if not flat-out need) to complicate our discussions about form and audience and content, to question our motives and goals and measures of success. He followed the conference up with a powerful American Theatre essay examining many of the same issues of diversity and aesthetic experimentation, and he did it all with an open-mindedness and willingness to listen in hopes of really coming up with some productive answers to the whole provocative set of questions. It’s an admirable quality, one also found readily in his work.
There’s something missing from the way I’ve memorized this.
—kidnapped prisoner Adalina, from Tight Embrace
The first thing that leaps to mind when I think about the play Tight Embrace (currently being produced at Theater Row by the venerable and vital INTAR Theatre) is “The Rainy Season”— the play’s jarring, thrilling, expectation-busting second act. We’ve spent Act One (“The Dry Season”) meeting our cast of characters: shrewd kidnapped prisoner Adalina; young big-hearted guard Barquin; a more by-the-books guard named Zero, and recently (and accidentally) kidnapped pregnant journalist Claudia. We’ve met these folks through a series of short, staccato, realistic scenes, separated by tableaus and grounded in the dual sense of inherent distrust and begrudging affection only forced confinement can breed.
And then the rains come.
Suddenly we shift, without warning, without expectation, to the memory of Adalina, with all of the characters directly if distantly addressing us, retelling us Adalina’s story in “her word” and from “her point of view,” never stopping for breath, never slowing down to allow us to gather our bearings and compile the alleged facts and wonder, even if just for a second, whether or not what we’re hearing is what actually happened.
It’s a powerful moment.
You worry so much about remembering things that you refuse to see what’s actually happening.
—the guard Zero, from Tight Embrace
Tight Embrace is an unmistakably, passionately, inherently political work steeped deeply and inextricably in the histories of colonization, resistance, and violence (particularly, but far from exclusively) within the Latino Diaspora. Zero’s admonition to Adalina carries a dual message that rings true with any oppressed peoples: remembering the past is important, but it can’t be allowed to blind you to the violence unfolding in front of you right now. It’s important for Adalina’s story to be told, for the details to be remembered to the best of her abilities, but it’s unrealistic to think that she’ll keep all her facts straight. Memory doesn’t work like that.
For Adalina, memory becomes a means of insulating herself from her fear, a way to maintain what little upper hand she believes she holds over her captors. She catalogues her remembrances, creating mnemonic devices to help her pass the time as much as keep track of the past. When Zero calls her out on this tendency, he draws attention to our own similar tendencies today: whether we are stuck on flashbacks to “good old days” or we dwell on the horrors of history so as to not be doomed to repeat it, we can never lose sight of the injustice, the chaos, or the beauty of the present moment.
Jorge seems to have a keen interest in protecting individual freedom. His writing often reveals that desire by taking place in a setting where he feels that freedom is circumscribed.
—Playwright Eisa Davis
Nowhere in Tight Embrace does Cortiñas explicitly name his play’s setting. Barquin and Zero are part of an unnamed revolution in an unnamed country. We’re not focused in on a specific dictator or bourgeois class and the effects of their reign. We’re not concerned with why Claudia and Adalina have been taken captive. We’re looking at the results of their captivity, the shifting rivalries amongst strangers driven together by circumstance, the heartbreak and the (something like) love that arises under this steady threat of outwardly imposed violence.
And make no mistake: in this world, the threat of violence is literally ever-present.
Kill the prisoner.
—from The Rules in Tight Embrace
Several inanimate objects take on almost character status throughout Tight Embrace, carrying their own symbolic weight and physical importance. A box of chocolates becomes a measure of favoritism, reconciliation, and begrudged camaraderie. An umbrella opens indoors to offer protection from perceived slights. A notebook (and its orange leather cover) suggests betrayal, puppy love, and a chance to set the record straight— although it may not have an orange leather cover after all. None of these images resonates quite as powerfully or casts quite as large a psychological shadow as the single gun shared by the guards.
The rules the guards must adhere to are spelled out quite clearly for them and for us: when in doubt, kill the prisoner. Adalina never seems too afraid, however, even as she quizzes Barquin on the very rules that would have him end her life. The gun’s intimidating presence is undeniable, but like any prolonged peril, fades into the characters’ periphery over time. It becomes part of the furniture. There are more important day-to-day events to tend to than fear: sweeping the floor clean of impossible amounts of dry-season dust, manipulating your jailers to learn their names or see their faces, teaching the young guard how to impress the young lady he has his eye on. It’s difficult to stay afraid of a weapon you never see used.
A gun is a gun, though, and guards are guards, and there’s no plain and simple way to eliminate those facts from the equation. Chekhov’s decree that “one must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it” holds doubly true for safehouse settings: you don’t give a guard a gun if you don’t think he may someday need it. Whether or not that gun ever actually goes off is almost irrelevant: it has the potential to be fired, and everyone in the room, regardless of how much they may seem to bond, is entirely aware of that potential. You could call it an undercurrent of fear; you could also call it an acute awareness of reality.
I don’t want to know anything more about you. I’m sorry.
—Adalina, from Tight Embrace
In dialogue with Jorge Ignacio Cortiñas, one is consistently brought face to face with his complicated worldview. The realities of the world in which we live are never far from the surface; his grasp of politics, history, and the way the world works inform his conversations as fully as they do his work. His is a realistic approach to life: we still live in a world full of racial, gender, and sexuality biases. We still live in a world suffering from crippling imbalances of power. Even the movements dedicated to struggling against these injustices find themselves flawed and in need of overhaul. Jorge speaks on these topics with measured fervor, knowing that his voice, while powerful, is only a portion of the equation.
Most importantly though, a conversation with Jorge is unwaveringly hopeful. Much like Tight Embrace, Jorge himself finds the beauty in heartbreak, the joy that surrounds and seeps into even the most painful of situations. It’s hard to walk away from a chat with Jorge without a smile on your face. As actor Vanessa Aspillaga says:
Jorge has a generosity of spirit that, to me, as an actor who has worked with him professionally and as someone who has broken bread with him socially, always felt like a big splash of the warm Cuban-American waters of our hometown of Miami Beach.
Tight Embrace, directed by Lisa Peterson, plays at the Kirk Theater (410 West 42nd Street) from November 22nd through January 2nd. Tickets: Ticket Central at 212-279-4200 or visit www.intartheatre.org.
Jorge Ignacio Cortiñas’s upcoming productions include Blind Mouth Singing at Teatro Vista in Chicago, beginning in February 2006. He is a member of New Dramatists, a Usual Suspect at New York Theatre Workshop, and is currently under commission from Hartford Stage and the Mark Taper Forum.
Kristoffer Diaz is a playwright, a Van Lier Fellow at New Dramatists, and the recipient of the Shaw Ruddock Residency from the Donmar Warehouse in London. His play Welcome to Arroyo’s will receive its World Premiere at the State Theatre (Austin, TX) in April 2006.
IN DIALOGUE is a column written by playwrights about playwrights, with a focus on showcasing new texts. If you are a playwright, and would like to write a column, please contact Emily DeVoti at: [email protected]
Kristoffer Diaz is a playwright whose most recent work, The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, tackles another uniquely American marriage of sports and entertainment: professional wrestling.