“The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano” revolves around a true incident that occurred around Christmas time 1969: The Young Lords, a group of young activist Puerto Ricans in New York, took over a church in East Harlem. Playwright and director Tlaloc Rivas has adapted the play from a young adult novel with the same title by Sonia Manzano, which focuses on the political awakening of a bright, lively 14-year-old Puerto Rican girl. The production is the theatrical equivalent of an anthem – aiming to be inspiring rather than nuanced. The characters frequently shout out slogans from the era (“El pueblo unido, jamás será vencido!/The people united, will never be defeated”) You needn’t be committed to la causa, though, to find the show entertaining, thanks to the energetic young cast (many of them current drama students at Carnegie Mellon University), half a dozen rhapsodic salsa songs, and some delightfully etched teenage characters, especially Evelyn.
She was born Rosa Maria del Carmen Serrano, but insists to her friends and family that they call her Evelyn. “I chose that name because whenever a bunch of girls walked around in El Barrio, all the corner boys would yell out – ‘Hey Maria…Where you going Maria…’ Half the girls in El Barrio are called ‘Rosa’, and the other half are called ‘Maria’. And I have both.”
Rivas chooses to tell the story through a complicated filter. A group of activists in 1979 are putting on a tenth anniversary radio drama in a pirate radio studio in El Barrio. So the actress Carolina Campos portrays the activist Iris who we see performing on stage in the radio drama as Evelyn. The half dozen other cast members each perform their 1979 character and up to four 1969 characters apiece. These include such central characters as Evelyn’s mother Carmen (Jade Langan), who disapproves of the Young Lords, and her grandmother (Kelsey Robinson), who is all for them and was an activist back in Puerto Rico (We eventually learn of an incident back home that explains the attitudes of both Evelyn’s mother and grandmother.)
It’s not clear dramatically why we need this extra 1979 layer, and little is made of it (we don’t see any clever radio sound effects, for example.) But it does simplify the staging (the actors usually stand in a row on stage in front of microphones) and I suspect made it easier to produce (several of the actors read from scripts.)
“The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano” gives a sympathetic portrait of a movement that is frequently compared to the Black Panther Party, including their militant rhetoric and style of dress, and their service to the community. During the 11 days they occupied the First Spanish United Methodist Church, they ran a free breakfast program for children, provided basic health testing (including for lead poisoning), offered daycare with Spanish language lessons and taught Puerto Rican history, and (perhaps most relevant?) even held performances at night. Rivas’ play is less detailed than some earlier works of theater on the subject, such as Party People, at the Public Theater in 2016. On the other hand, that was 150 minutes. This one is 55, and features those gorgeous songs, most composed by Sartje Picket with lyrics by the playwright. But one of the songs is fashioned from the poem “Puerto Rican Obituary” by Pedro Pietro, the late co-founder of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, which he performed as a Young Lord, we’re told, in the church that they occupied . “In honor of him and his impact on Nuyorican culture and identity,” it has now been set to music. Who knows, maybe it’ll become an anthem.
We’re not just your doormen
We are more than your maids
We have dreams of our own
And we have our own parades.
Puerto Rico is a beautiful place
Puerto Ricans are a beautiful race
Tonight, we vow to fight
For our freedoms and our rights