Red Riding in the 'Hood
The amazing Manuel Morán brings Latino children's theater--and educational empowerment--to the Lower East Side. Raven Snook reports.
It was unbelievable: I couldn't remember the ending to Little Red Riding Hood! "How does this end again?" I whispered desperately to my friend. "Red just runs away right?" "No!" my friend Holly was aghast. "There's a hunter, remember? He comes in and shoots the wolf!" "How old am I?" I mumbled, depressed. Happily, after seeing the Sociedad Educativa de Las Artes' (SEA) charming musical production of La Caperucita Roja (Little Red Riding Hood), I felt like a kid again.
Actually, the one who really made me feel old is SEA's youthful executive and artistic director/education director Manuel A. Morán. "SEA is a hispanic/bilingual arts-in-education organization dedicated to the empowerment and educational advancement of children and young adults," Morán tells me. "I founded the theater back in my native Puerto Rico in 1985 when I was just 15 years old!" he exclaimed exuberantly.
How, I wondered, did a 15-year-old manage to form his own long-term theater company? "I was involved in theater at school, and I just adored it. I wanted to do more," Morán says. "The municipality of my town was looking to create a theater and was holding interviews for an executive director. I decided to apply. Why not? I couldn't believe it, here I was, a kid, going up against adult professionals. Even my own high school theater teacher interviewed for the position! But in the end, it was given to me."
It takes chutzpah to be able to envision yourself as theater director at age 15 but, Morán explains, his whole family participated. "My grandfather had owned a theater, so everyone in my family helped me out, making costumes, doing tech, everything. I held my first open call and 157 people auditioned. I chose 70. I decided to start with a children's production since the play I had in mind used 35 people."
Three months later, the municipality did not come through on all it had promised, but that didn't deter Morán. His family sold chocolates to raise money--anything to keep the theater going--and in the end they prevailed.
Soon Morán went off to the University of Puerto Rico to study theater, but he did not disband SEA. Instead, every summer he would faithfully return home to produce and direct more productions. At this point, SEA had turned its focus towards children's educational theater, with an emphasis on Hispanic culture.
In the early 1990s when Morán moved to New York City to pursue his M.A. in Educational and Musical Theatre at New York University, he brought SEA with him. In 1993 the company established itself on the Lower East Side in the heart of Manhattan's Hispanic community, and in 1996 SEA had its first New York City production. The company has been performing plays both in New York City and Puerto Rico ever since.
"We are proud to be the only professional Latino children's theater in New York City--maybe even in the U.S." Morán continues. "There is a strong tradition of children's theater in Spanish culture, and we are happy to be bringing it back to NYC's large Hispanic community. Professional Latino children's theater was absent in this city for almost 18 years! We not only mount shows, we also perform and teach in 20 school districts. I am very, very, very proud of what we do," Morán says genuinely. "It's hard work, but there are so many rewards."
Just look at the lineup of shows in repertory for the current season: in addition to Little Red Riding Hood, there is La Muela del Rey Farfan (The Toothache of King Farfan); a children's Zarzuela, a kind of Spanish operetta from the beginning of the 20th century based on a piece of classic Spanish children's literature; a bilingual musical adaptation of The Three Little Pigs; Tropical! , a musical revue about the origins of Latin tropical music; Rafael Hernández...Romance, a musical revue about the life and songs of Hernandez; The Dropouts, an educational theater piece about staying in school; and La Plenópera Del Empache, a Puerto Rican folk tale with Afro-Caribbean music.
There is also the Los Kabayitos Theatre program, which offers a year-round season of professional puppet and children's theater with puppets designed by the world-renowned puppet maker José Lopez. Their shows include plays based on the story of Don Quixote, The Legends of the Enchanted Treasure, and The Encounter of Juan Bobo and Pedro Animal.
Morán is not just Puerto Rico-centric. "There is a whole continent beneath us. Ideally my goal is to use stories from every Spanish culture. So far, we have stories from Spain, Peru, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Guatemala, The Dominican Republic--so many more. We believe in language development through the arts. Although we focus on exposing Spanish-speaking people to Spanish theater culture, we welcome non-Spanish speakers as well."
I myself do not speak Spanish, however by the end of the bilingual Little Red Riding Hood, with the actors effortlessly slipping in and out of each language, I started to understand. Words and phrases became familiar, and pretty soon I forgot which language I was listening to. If I, with basically no knowledge of the language, could benefit from an hour children's show, I marveled at how wonderful it would be for children and adults of all ages with even the most rudimentary knowledge of Spanish.
Once my friend Holly reminded me of the ending of Red Riding Hood, I settled in for what I thought would be a familiar finale. But SEA is quite clever. Their Little Red is pretty sharp: She recognizes the wolf from their first meeting. When she gets to her grandmother's house, she is not surprised to find him. And when, disguised as her grandmother, he reveals himself to be a wolf, she decides she is hungry and is going to eat him. In the end, it is the wolf, not Little Red who ends up begging for his life, and the updated story teaches youngsters of all ages an important lesson: not to be afraid. Manual Morán certainly isn't! He's confidently and capably bringing Latino children's theater into the 21st century.