Piñero, Miguel: 1946-1988: Playwright, Poet, Actor
Miguel Piñero: 1946-1988: Playwright, poet, actor
When theater-goers think of contemporary playwrights of color, they might think first of Luis Valdez or perhaps August Wilson. These men, who achieved significant reputations as playwrights, became writers in very conventional ways, having first studied drama, as did Valdez, or having evolved from poet to dramatist, as did Wilson. Both Valdez and Wilson saw theater as a means to express the lack of equality and social justice that each writer had noted about his own people. For Miguel Piñero however, the journey to playwright was more complex. His career as a playwright began in New York's Ossining Correctional Facility (Sing Sing), where Piñero was serving a sentence for armed robbery. It was his reaction to events witnessed while in prison that provided the impetus for Piñero to find his creative voice.
Miguel Piñero was born in Gurabo, Puerto Rico, in 1946. The son of Adelina Piñero and Miguel Angel Gómez, Miguel Piñero emigrated to the United States with his parents and brothers and sisters. The extended family settled into Manhattan's Lower East Side. After his father deserted the family, the eight-year-old Piñero, his mother, and siblings, were all forced to live on the streets for a short period of time. In the period following, Piñero became involved with crime and drugs. As a result, Piñero achieved only a seventh grade education before being incarcerated for the first time at age 13. Eventually, he was sent to juvenile detention centers several times, before finally being sent to prison for armed robbery and drug possession. By the time he was 24, Piñero was serving his third sentence in the New York State prison system. It was at this time that Piñero's life underwent a dramatic change.
Discovery of Talent
While at Sing Sing, Piñero decided to join a prison theater workshop, "The Family." Piñero wrote several short plays while a prisoner, but most attention has been paid to Short Eyes, the story of an imprisoned child molester who is judged and then murdered by fellow prisoners. When the New York Times theater critic, Max Gussow, visited the prison in 1972, more than half of the works he saw performed were written and acted by Piñero. It was the subsequent Gussow review in the New York Times that opened a new life for Mikey, as he was known to his friends. In response to Gussow's article, Arthur Bartow, the director of the Theatre at the Riverside Church, arranged to stage Short Eyes after Piñero's release from prison. In 1974, after leaving the Riverside Theatre, Piñero's play moved to the Joseph Papp Public Theatre and then to the Vivian Beaumont Theatre in Lincoln Center. That same year, Short Eyes won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award as best American play of the year. It also won an Obie Award for best off-Broadway play. Eventually, in 1979 Piñero's play was filmed, with Piñero himself writing the screenplay and also taking an acting role in the final filmed version.
At a Glance . . .
Born December 19, 1946, in Gurabo, Puerto Rico; died on, June 17, 1988 in New York City; married Juanita Lovette Rameize, 1977 (divorced, 1979); children: Ismael Castro.
Career: Writer and actor; founder, Nuyorican Poet's Theatre, New York City, 1975.
Awards: New York Drama Critics Circle Award, Antoinette Perry Award Nomination for best play, Obie Award, and Drama Desk Award, all in 1974, all for Short Eyes: The Killing of a Sex Offender by the Inmates of the House of Detention Awaiting Trial.
Short Eyes was not the last of Piñero's works to find a home on the New York stage, but none of his other works achieved quite the same level of critical acclaim. Perhaps the success of Short Eyes rested on the brutality of its content, or perhaps it was the glimpse into a world where most theater-goers never enter that held the audience transfixed. When it was staged in 1999, 25 years after the initial production, Lloyd Rose, of the Washington Post, labeled the play a "conventional enough drama." Rose suggested that Piñero is not "breaking any taboos." Instead, stated Rose, Short Eyes "exists only to teach the presumably pampered audience a lesson about the gritty reality of minorities in prison," and this really only provides a "freak-show element" that is not sufficient for the audience.
Of course, even when freshly produced, Short Eyes was not without controversy. While celebrating the play's insight into the prisoner's lives, several critics, such as Stanley Kauffman, writing for New Republic and Michael Feingold, writing for the Village Voice pointed to flaws in Piñero's technique that revealed his lack of experience. Piñero had written other plays while in prison, and he continued to write both plays and poems after his release from prison. Plays such as Midnight Moon at the Greasy Spoon, The Sun Always Shines for the Cool, and Eulogy for a SmallTime Thief, continued to focus on the criminals or down-trodden of street life. Piñero also published a collection of his poetry in 1979, La Bodega Sold Dreams.
Success as a playwright brought many changes to Piñero's life. For a brief time Piñero was in demand at college campuses as a guest lecturer and visiting professor. In the early 1980s he taught creative writing at Rutgers University and in 1982 he was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship for writing. Piñero moved to Philadelphia for a short period and then moved to Los Angeles where he founded the One Act Theatre Festival, but eventually he returned to New York City. After he achieved success, Piñero returned to his old neighborhood in Manhattan's Lower East Side. The story of how Piñero handed out cash to those he met on the street is told by Robert Dominguez in a review of a recently released biography of Piñero's life. Writing for the New York Daily News, Dominguez related that Piñero gave the neighborhood addicts money to buy drugs, but he also gave money to a street musician and to a street vendor who needed new equipment. Clearly Piñero was a complex man who, in spite of his artistic success, was unable to escape the poor streets in which he had lived as a child.
Success as an Actor
In addition to his achievements as a playwright and poet, Piñero also found some success as an actor. Like his writing, acting was a talent that he discovered while in prison. Piñero acted in his own plays. He also acted in other films, including a small role in a film about a drug kingpin, Alphabet City, in 1984 and another small part in an unconventional romantic comedy, Almost You, in 1985. Neither film was a critical hit. Piñero's other film credits included Times Square (1980). Fort Apache, The Bronx (1981), Breathless (1983), Exposed (1983). Deal of the Century (1983). and The Pick-Up Artist (1987). In most of these films, Piñero was little more than a walk-on, often playing a stereotyped low-life criminal-type—the sort of people that he knew well and wrote about most often. On television, Piñero's roles were similar to his own life. He appeared on Miami Vice, Baretta, and Kojak, always playing roles that echoed his own marginalized experiences with criminals, drug dealers, and prostitutes.
Piñero's work in both theater and on film reflected the world in which he lived and with which he was most familiar. The subjects he wrote about, as well as the characters that he played, were most often living on the edge, oftentimes criminals, and were almost always involved with drugs. The world of seedy streets and poor, often ethnically divided neighborhoods, provided both the background and the inhabitants for Piñero's plays. Even in the characters that he played in film and on television, Piñero seemed to be typecast, playing the same people whose lives he portrayed in his plays.
But it was equally clear that this was the world he personally inhabited and the one with which he most closely identified. Even when given the opportunity to create his own world, via his plays, Piñero chose to write about the world where he lived. Even after his release from prison, and perhaps in spite of the success that Short Eyes brought to him, Piñero continued in much the same way as before his success. While he continued to work with inmates and write, he also continued to have problems with the police. In 1977 he was arrested for using obscene language in a confrontation with a subway attendant, and in 1978 he was arrested for grand larceny, and then arrested again in 1983 for heroin possession. In spite of success and the extra money that his success brought, Piñero was never able to leave his past completely behind him. Even as he lay dying, he wrote about his own intimate world, but with illness, the topic moved in another direction. When he died in June of 1988, Piñero was writing a new play about an intensive care unit in a hospital. As was the case with his earlier plays, Piñero was once again living what he was writing: Every Form of Refuge Has Its Price could have been the story of the hospital in which Piñero lay dying of cirrhosis.
A New Audience
More than a decade after his death, a new film about Piñero's life has introduced the playwright to another generation. Simply called, Piñero, this biographical film starred actor Benjamin Bratt as Piñero. At just under two hours, Piñero, which was written and directed by Leon Ichas, attempts to capture the essence of the playwright's life, as well as define what motivated his self-destructive personality. Bratt captured Piñero's own difficulty in leaving drugs and alcohol behind as he became more successful. Bratt was so effective as Piñero that several critics refer to this work as the best performance of his career, while at the same time faulting the depressive nature of the film and its lack of imaginative interpretation. What worked best in the film was the way in which Piñero's work was opened up to a new generation. Because so few reviewers can be enthusiastic about the film, they instead focused on Piñero, the man and the writer, and so the audience learned more about Piñero's craft, which in turn led to a renewed interest in his plays. If the film, flawed as entertainment, led viewers back to Piñero's plays, then it might be considered a success.
Miguel Piñero was recognized as one of the most important voices of Latin culture during the 1970s and 1980s. He helped to found the Nuyorican Poet's Café, which showcased new Latin talent, and he continued to work with others just like himself—criminals, former criminals, and aspiring Puerto Rican writers with talent waiting to be nurtured and discovered. At his death in 1988, Piñero was eulogized by admirers and friends in a public memorial service conducted at the Public Theatre in New York City. According to Newsday, "During the memorial service, actors read from five of his works." Other poets from the Nuyorican Poet's Café also read some of their poems. Piñero's ashes were scattered along the streets of New York after the memorial service ended, but it was his contributions as a Puerto Rican poet and dramatist that were remembered in the many obituaries printed after his death. The most notable obituary was written by the man who first brought Piñero's talent to the public's attention. Mel Gussow, the theater critic who first discovered and promoted Piñero's work wrote in The New York Times that Piñero had "a striking, raw talent," but that his work was also marked "by a bitter humor and a lilting kind of street poetry." Gussow stated that Piñero "seemed to cherish his role as an outcast, playing it in real life as well as in movies and on television." At the end of his obituary, Gussow closed with a poignant mention of Piñero's death, which "cuts short what could have been—what should have been—a remarkable career."
Short Eyes, Hill and Wang, 1975.
La Bodega Sold Dreams, Arte Público Press, 1980.
The Sun Always Shines for the Cool; Midnight Moon at the Greasy Spoon; Eulogy For a Small-Time Thief, Arte Público Press, 1984.
Outrageous One Act Plays, Arte Público Press, 1986.
All Junkies, first produced in New York City, 1973.
Short Eyes, first produced in New York City, 1974.
Sideshow, first produced in New York City, 1975.
The Gun Tower, first produced in New York City, 1976.
The Sun Always Shines For the Cool, first produced in New York City, 1976.
Eulogy For a Small-Time Thief, first produced off-Broadway in New York City, 1977.
Straight From the Ghetto, (with Neil Harris) first produced in New York City, 1978.
Cold Beer, first produced in New York City, 1979.
NuYorican Nights at the Stanton Street Social Club, first produced in New York City, 1980.
Playland Blues, first produced in New York City, 1980.
A Midnight Moon at the Greasy Spoon, first produced in New York City, 1981.
New Republic, April 20, 1974, p. 20.
Newsday, June 25, 1988, p. 16.
New York Daily News, December 13, 2001, p. 61.
The New York Times, December 3, 1983, p. 26; June 25, 1988, p. 13; July 3, 1988, p. 8.
The Village Voice, January 10, 1974, p. 55; March 28, 1974, p. 68.
The Washington Post, April 11, 1999, p. C01.
—Sheri Elaine Metzger
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