17, No. 19
23 - Oct. 6, 2004
Norwood Actor Makes Home at
By MIRANDA KAPLAN
In the Martin Luther King
Auditorium, housed above the offices of SEIU 1199, the health care
workers union, on West 43rd Street in Manhattan, the final performance
of "Baile Cangrejero" is in full swing and all eyes are on
one slight man. His grin is wide and mischievous, and the dips of his
white hat alternately hide and reveal crow's-feet. He dances
loosely and carelessly, as if he were hosting a beach party instead of
performing on a stage.
The basis of the show is weighty, an exploration of the points at
which African and Latin cultures meet in the Caribbean, guided by the
words of six Latin American poets. But the man onstage isn't taking it
all that seriously. Periodically, between the music from the small
ensemble behind him and the poetry he and his co-star sing out, he
stops, swivels his head to fixate on one audience member, and makes a
coy remark in Spanish. Giggles spread across the room. Even those who
don't necessarily understand the words seem to get the meaning.
As the rousing finale approaches, he beckons to some of them to join
him onstage for a dance. And they do, while the rest of the spectators
lean out of their folding chairs, enthusiastically clapping the beat
and hooting in approval. The easy communication between performer and
observer is as evident during the show as afterward, when the star
perches casually on the stage to chat with a cluster of well wishers.
The star is Jorge Merced, a 39-year-old Norwood resident and a veteran
of Pregones Theater, the south Bronx theater company that serves as an
outlet for Latino, and specifically Puerto Rican, arts and culture.
Now celebrating its 25th anniversary, Pregones continues to be a
vehicle for Puerto Rican music, poetry, dance and theater that
normally go underrepresented on mainstream stages.
And Merced himself is marking a high point in his 17-year career at
Pregones as he prepares to receive an award from the Hispanic
Organization for Latin Actors (HOLA) in September. It's the same group
that has recognized the talents of artists like actor Alfred Molina
and Pulitzer-winning playwright Nilo Cruz. "I'm deeply honored by
that," Merced says.
His credentials as an actor and activist go back to his college days,
but his identity as a performer goes back to his youth in Puerto Rico,
where he studied music at a high school for the arts. When he came to
the U.S. at the age of 17, he originally intended to study
architecture, but "the passion was calling me back for the
performing arts," he says with a smile.
Merced soon dropped architecture to study dance, first at the
celebrated Alvin Ailey School, then in the BFA program at City
College. Eager to move on to a career, he never completed his
Instead, he found himself at Pregones in 1987. "I never looked
back," he shrugs. "I think it was a great decision."
In his time with Pregones, Merced has acted in over 30 productions and
directed several more. Last year, he won widespread acclaim for his
role in "Ay Jesus," a show based on the life of Puerto Rican
activist Jesus Colon. The New York Times' Seth Kugel said of "Baile
Cangrejero," "Mr. Merced mesmerized the crowd with an energy
level so high that his eyes seemed ready to burst from his head."
But it's his promotion of Latino theater, not his performance of it,
that has earned him recognition from HOLA. Three years ago, Merced
started the Asuncion Playwrights Project, which seeks out talented
young Latino playwrights from across the country to receive mentoring
from established writers. For him, the project represents part of the
mission of Pregones: to allow Hispanic artists to define their own
identities and defy expectations. "We provide opportunities for
artists to really own their own work,"he says.
In its 25th year, Pregones has renewed its commitment to that goal
with the approval of $500,000 in funds from the New York Empowerment
Zone to build a state-of-the-art, 120-seat theater next door to the
company's current modest home at 571 Walton Ave. The expansion
of Pregones, to be completed in December, promises jobs for
residents, an added attraction for tourists, and affirmation of what
Merced already knows to be true: that "arts in the south
Bronx" is not a contradiction in terms.
"I always turn to the Bronx for my culture," says Merced.
"I think a lot of people are beginning to understand that you
don't need to go far from your home to get good quality art."
During their touring season, when the Pregones players take their
productions all over the Western Hemisphere and Europe, Merced
considers it an honor to be part of the cultural voice of an ethnicity
and a borough. "This is our home," he says. "We're very
proud to be ambassadors of the Bronx wherever we go."
And, thanks to its new facilities and the gumption of Merced and his
colleagues, the theater looks forward to raising that voice for years
"It's been a great journey with Pregones," he says.
"It's been a long road, and we can finally say that Pregones is
going to be here for a long time."
Ed. note: For more information on Pregones, call (718)
585-1202 or visit
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