Capeman’s PR Means Public Relations

This is a tale about The Capeman, past and present, history and Broadway, Puerto Ricans and public relations, and the Public Theater. On Sunday night I was among the masses huddling under the awning in front of the Delacorte Theater, waiting through a rain delay to be seated for a performance of Paul Simon’s musical, The Capeman. There was a testy atmosphere that is beginning to pervade New York’s cherished “free” events. Even the Times reviewer sensed it: “New York is always part fairyland, part house of horrors,” he wrote, elegantly if unwittingly summing up the widening class conflict played out at a show that was “free” for some, but could be bought into for $175 by a privileged class of others.

The performance I saw was perhaps better than anticipated–the Diane Paulus get-this-show-ready-for-Broadway mojo was in effect. The singers seemed unnaturally talented, the songs were rendered with a level of professionalism and artistry that transcended the decent attempts made by the original cast. Oscar Hernández deserves so much credit for his undying dedication to this material that he should be rewarded retroactive Grammys for each one that Capeman auteur Paul Simon has won in the past. Simon should be saying, “Hey Oscar, would you like to take a crack at ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ or “Kodachrome”? I think this comeback thing could be good for both of us.”

But what to make of The Capeman and our troubled relationship with it as artistic and cultural milestone? I thought I’d reach back to a piece I put together back in the late ’90s, when the original production premiered, an article that was never published by the powers that be at The Village Voice about Sal Agrón and his roots in our community.

You may have remembered that back in 1998, the late, great Pedro Pietri helped stage an event at El Caney on 26th Street in which he baptized Aurea Agrón, Sal’s sister, with coconut milk as a member of La Santa Church de la Madre of Los Tomates. That same night he inducted Sal into the Hall of Fame of Deceased Diplomacy. It was one of those random Spirit Republic of Puerto Rico events that were emblematic of our rambling sense of identity formation.

Around that time I spoke with a lot of people about Sal, the murder, the play, and what it meant to the Puerto Rican community. I asked Pedro, who said he was a causal acquaintance of the Umbrella Man when he was growing up on the West Side, how he felt Sal’s actions reflected on us.

“I didn’t feel ashamed at all,” said Pietri. “A lot of people in the projects were saying “The gangs are giving us a bad name,” and I said, “Man, they’re not giving us a bad name. We came here already stuck with one!”

Here are some of the things people in the community were saying at the time the original play opened:

“Why our Capeman? Why not our Superman?”

“The play glorifies the life of a killer. In addition, it celebrates the contributions of the writers/producers of this work who are not of Latino descent and continue to turn to communities fostering ideas and concepts that are repeatedly misinterpreted.”

The Capeman could have been seen as a corrective to West Side Story, where there was almost no involvement of Puerto Ricans in the process. In The Capeman we could count on the presence of Marc Anthony, Ednita Nazario, “honorary Puerto Rican” Rubén Blades, and many others in lesser roles. But there’s a fine line between criminal stereotyping and the “reality” of social pathologies that Puerto Ricans and many other oppressed groups in the U.S. live under. How do we re-claim these stories?

Oscar Hernández has, in a labor of love, rendered these songs in a way that make them hauntingly beautiful in many instances, and we have never been under an illusion that there was not some hybridizing going on. There’s a lot of doo-wop in the play, something that doesn’t seem all that accurate, despite the fact that Pietri himself was a strong proponent, but maybe that’s nitpicking. “Vampires” is a good example of hybridity that works. The Afro-Cuban montuno that drives the song is embellished by rock guitars reminiscent of Santana, a hybrid that most of us seemed comfortable with. Why is it, though, that when they deliver the lines, “If you think you got the balls, then mete mano!” they just don’t seem like they would logically spring from the minds of a late ’50s Nuyorican? Were young lads like Sal idealizing “Bernadette” through a whimsical Platters-like ditty or would it have been more like the howling heartsick moans of Joe Bataan?

Back in the late ’90s, Professor Juan Flores told me:

“In generalizing Puerto Rican music, Simon is emptying it of the social and historical experience that is so important to its meaning,”

I think that’s what I felt. And I think there’s a difference between making a hybrid that manages to preserve our social and historical experience, like salsa, and one that doesn’t, like the much of the music of The Capeman.

Nonetheless, the music, as I said, was excellent, and at times, moving. But there was another problem, the much criticized storyline, which was now streamlined, and in this case I’d have to say that means dumbed-down. We all know that works like theatrical productions and films always pare away details in an effort to create clarity, or coherent narrative threads. But since the beginning, The Capeman has missed on the opportunity to flesh out Sal’s character in a way that makes him someone easier to sympathize with. The play merely states that he goes to prison, learns how to read, and matures enough to feel regret for the crime he was convicted of. It goes to great lengths to paint him as the unwitting tool of fate, a man whose sole purpose was to live a tragic Puerto Rican life, and make sense of the suffering that entailed. “Life Is an Ocean of Endless Tears,” says the title of one song, and in “Santero,” the song central to establishing the mysterious Puerto Rican cultural roots of Sal’s fate, we are told the “why” of Sal’s story:

In New York on a hot night
There’s a playground filled with cries
As a quarter moon like a dagger
Tears across the skies
So say the shells.
So say the shells.

Eleggua, king of the crossroads
With his colors red and black,
Sees a blade leap in the moonlight
But he does not hold it back.
So say the shells.
Mafere fan los Caracoles.

No! No puede ser.
I know my son is mischievous
Maybe troublesome, not wicked.
Why should his feet obey the path
A few shells have predicted?

I know it’s kind of boring and didactic for me to say this, but there’s no mention of Puerto Rico’s colonial relationship with the United States. Of course, there never is. It’s better theater to imply that a mysterious syncretic religion like santería was responsible for this. Granted, there are many references in the current production that allude to the sociological reasons for a cursed life like Sal’s: pre-existing racism, poverty, social neglect. There’s even a reference to the old “third race” theory that placed Puerto Ricans in contestation with both whites and blacks. But somehow they seem like passing mentions.

When I went to Sal’s sister Aurea’s apartment in the North Bronx back in 1998, she told me a lot of stuff about Sal and how they grew up, some of which was touched on in the original production, but has been stripped away for the Broadway-ready thing we see here.

We didn’t have any family. My mother was an orphan, and she only had her brother and sister and they had their own problems and lived in little wooden shacks in the campo, in Hormigueros.  I remember I had a red metal rocking chair and I would wait for my father. When I saw him coming down the hill, I ran to hug him and then he would go to kiss Sal laying in the bed because my brother was a sick kid. He was crying all the time. He had a sickness when he was little that was in his bones.

When my brother was in the convent, he was mistreated for being a bedwetter. When he was very young he used to pee in the bed. Nobody knew what to do about it. My mother had to work and was ignorant. They used to punish him, put him in the patio, and the sun would hit the patio every day. He would go on the colchoneta, they would put it on his head and walk all around the patio until the sun dried those sheets. They made the kids sing Salvador el meón. He used to pee all the time. When he got older, he still did it. They used to put the bricks on fire so he could pee in there, so the heat would help him. But it didn’t work. They used to make him sleep on the stinking mattress. They tied him up on a tree and let the ants crawl all over him.

There was an Hormigueros sequence in the original Capeman, and the fact that it’s missing here seems to imply that it disrupts the flow of the new streamlined version, designed to emphasize the strength of the music. But I seem to remember that it was the difficult and complex nature of Sal’s experience that confused some people and turned off others, perhaps causing Ben Brantley, the New York Times reviewer who mysteriously finds this new version palatable, to say the original production “register[ed] as one solemn, helplessly confused drone. It’s like watching a mortally wounded animal.”

That wounded animal was the complex story of Sal, squeezed by Simon and co-librettist Derek Walcott into a toothpaste tube of soft-rock, doo-wop and meta-salsa that was supposed to be a Broadway musical. That wounded animal was the nightmare so many of us lived as part of our migratory experience. It was something that the theatergoing public, and the rest of the national television audience that passed itself off for the American people, was not ever exposed to.

So it would follow that it would be unimaginable to even a “literate” New York audience that a juvenile delinquent like Sal could have an intellect and take part in America’s decade-long experiment in social change, the so-called counterculture. When he was transported to New York from Hormigueros as a child, Sal Agrón, destined to become a symbol for the semi-literate Puerto Rican poor, became a baby boomer, and even in prison he took part in the social transformation that was sweeping the U.S. He extensively educated himself in the feverish Marxism-Leninism of the post-Vietnam era ’70s. The Attica prison riot had created an explosion of prisoners rights movements, of which he was an active member. His poetry, many pages of which Aurea gave me, was spacy and incoherent, but not semi-literate:

I mix my flesh and blood

My sex, my love and all in the spirit of our song

For equal distribution in common interchange in the

Human struggle for liberation in our time

He quoted everything from The Communist Manifesto to Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind in his writings, and became a poster boy for many obscure radical groups looking for revolutionary credentials. One lefty rag that appeared in the mid-’70s trumpeted “Salvador Agrón has been in prison for 16 years…and Richard Nixon is still free!”

One of Sal’s confidants was Richard Jacoby, who published a biography of him in the early 2000s. “I would compare him to Genet,” Jacoby told me. “He was a very complicated deep soul who wrote tons of letters that needed almost no editing.” Jacoby, who met Agron in 1974 while doing his PhD. Thesis on “Consciousness Expansion Among Death Row Inmates.”  “He was into Bob Dylan, Karl Marx, the Kama Sutra,” said Jacoby. “He especially liked [Last Exit to Brooklyn author] Hubert Selby, because he’d felt he was dealing with the lowest of the low, and did it in an honest way.” Selby has agreed to write the introduction to Jacoby’s bio, his first choice over William Kunstler, who successfully defended Sal when he absconded from a minimum-security prison in 1976.

Then there’s the speculation that at various times, Sal even denied doing the killings.

“After he got out of prison, he went to the park where this thing happened, to get flashbacks,” Aurea told me. “He said, those kids were already on the floor when I got there that night. I asked him “Why did you take the blame?” He said, “I had to. I would have been dead.”

There are many reasons to be skeptical of Sal’s conviction. The city was out for blood, there was an all-white jury, only one eyewitness, and the confession easily could have been coerced. In an essay Agron wrote in prison in 1978, he describes several details about the murder weapon, the testimony of his accuser, Elwald Reimer, and the lack of blood found on his famous cape, arguing his innocence. “I took the…responsibility for two murders…which I never committed…Perhaps it was done as retribution for my previous acts of violence for which I was never apprehended.”

I went with these thoughts to another dear departed Nuyorican, Richie Pérez, who as usual, was pragmatic in his analysis:

Everybody that goes to prison says he’s innocent, but if he didn’t do it, the police got the perfect patsy, because he wanted to play the role of the bad guy.

And what a big-time bad guy he became. Sal became the poster boy of the defiant gangsta more than 30 years before Tupac. “I don’t care if I burn,” he said famously with smiling bravado when he got caught.

Among the reams of Sal’s writing Aurea gave me was an essay he wrote in 1977 called “The Capeman.” In it, he reveals not only his eerie self-awareness, one far beyond the semi-literate characterization he gets, but acknowledges the dawn of tabloid-crime mania in this country.

The smile is not the smile of a child that wanted to be an actor. It is not the smile of a psychotic criminal. But it is the reflected smile of a sick society.

That is a line that Sal should have delivered in The Capeman. Instead, as pointed out in the Times review, a different version of it went to the mother of the murdered boy, played by Luba Mason, coincidentally Rubén Blades’s current romantic partner:

“This city makes a cartoon of a crime.”

One last note about the fact that The New York Times published a review of this staging of The Capeman. When I was putting together the article I did for The Daily News“Viva” section, I was told this by the Public Theater’s publicity department:

Thanks for writing but we’re not doing any press for this three day concert. It’s just a fun way to end the summer.

When I persisted and tried to get an interview with one of the cast members, the Public Theater wrote me back:

I understand from one of the cast members of The Capeman that you requested an interview. Please send all press requests to me for anything Public Theater related and as I think was passed on to you, we’re not doing any press for the park concert. It’s just a fun, end of the summer event for free.

When I asked if there were any reason besides the idea that the concert would be fun (if not, technically free) that they weren’t doing any press they said this:

We did the same thing for Hair. It’s free and the artists have a short rehearsal period so we’ve just decided no press or reviews. Just a low key, end of the summer, three day concert.

Since that email was sent to me, The New York Times has run a preview piece and the aforementioned review.

So if you’re wondering whether the Public Theater and its production of The Capeman is more concerned with Puerto Ricans or Public Relations, I’d go with the latter. I suppose it would be naive to expect anything different.

3 Comments

Add yours →

  1. Saludos Ed
    Great article and thanks for pointing out how multi-dimensional we are and how the political, socialogical, religious, environment, among other influences – shapes a person’s development. Also, now I remember why you asked me about Aurea Agron, Salvador’s sister. I’d forgotten that Pedro & I had inducted him into the Hall of Fame of Deceased Diplomacy at the Caney in 1998. We’d already inducted Raul Julia and Eddie Figueroa in 1994 and in fact I read a message that day sent to us from the other side of the mirror from Raul thanking the Embassy for the great honor. Perhaps the writers and producers will read your piece and add a little more dimension to their story. At the very least they should study up on cultural schizophrenia.
    Saludos hermano,
    Adal Maldonado
    Resident Dissident
    El Puerto Rican Embassy

  2. Thanks for a terrific piece about The Capeman and Salvador Agron. I especially appreciate that you mention Richard Jacoby’s excellent biography, Conversations with the Capeman, which has recently been reissued by University of Wisconsin Press, and which contains the fullest, truest and most intimate picture we have yet received about the real-life Sal Agron. More than a biography, and a compilation of many of his letters written over several years, this fine book is also a moving story about his relationship with Jacoby, a fellow from a different background but an interesting character in his own right and someone who offers many valuable insights. Agron was a major figure in New York prison history in the 60s and 70s, in ways that the musical sadly ignores. Persons who have discovered Agron through the musical would do well to read this wonderful, deeply absorbing account. The dialogue between Sal and Richard reminds us today about how far we have fallen from our earlier concern about prison matters, even as we sink deeper and deeper into the widening prison abyss. Long live the memory of Salvador Agron and his painful struggle. Long live this classic memoir/history/biography.

  3. I think that they should redo the Capeman. I know it sounds stupid but they should. Take the best of Simon’s songs, but make the story line more clear, more a reflection of the times and the real societal problems. Also, they should make the language in the play reflect they way the characters would have talked, and use some more of Sal’s writing. I was thinking of instead of older Sal just walking in on his younger self while narrating his life, it could be more of him writing the book about his life. For me the story would focus around Sal telling Richard Jacoby his story, with the songs and scenes of his childhood being the reflections. This style of “recounting your past to someone who is writing a book” has been done before in movies and theater, but I think it would serve well for the Capeman. The play would not then, be based on Walcott/ Simon’s book, but rather or Jacoby’s novel . Granted I have not read it and don’t know how well that story of Sal would transfer to the stage, but it seems like you could have a happy medium between both the play and the book. Then it would allow for a more realistic portrayal of Sal and his life.

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