Published in KPBS On Air Magazine June 1995
You may have some familiarity with plate tectonics, but have you ever heard of Cloud Tectonics? Not very likely, since the term was invented by José Rivera, whose latest play of the same name gets its West coast premiere at the La Jolla Playhouse this month (June 20-July 16).
“It’s really a meaningless term,” claims the 40 year-old, pony-tailed playwright. ” I was on an airplane, looking down. And I was thinking, ‘What would you call the study of the shape of clouds and how they form?’ And I thought, ‘How ridiculous to even attempt it.’ And that became a metaphor for me, for studying love, and what makes people fall in love. It can never really be fully understood.'”
In “Cloud Tectonics”, which is set in L.A. against “the noise of earthquakes, the screams of a dying culture,” an airplane baggage handler picks up a pregnant hitchhiker who’s searching for the guy who knocked her up two years ago. When they arrive at the baggage handler’s apartment, time literally stops, and neither can ever think of time, space or love as they did before.
The piece is apocalyptic, but much less so than Rivera’s last La Jolla venture, the brutal, provocative, mythical “Marisol”, which won seven Drama-Logue awards and an Obie for Best Play in New York. The director of the La Jolla production of “Marisol” and “Cloud Tectonics” is Tina Landau. “Marisol’s” New York airing was directed by La Jolla Playhouse artistic director Michael Greif, who says Rivera “writes plays with large, timeless and universal themes, asking big questions and putting them in recognizable, contemporary frameworks. In “Cloud Tectonics”, he takes affectionate jabs at life in Los Angeles,… living on the edge of disaster, and explores questions of cultural identity in the urban setting.”
Rivera himself grew up culturally “schizophrenic,” as one of the first Puerto Ricans in central Long Island. “We moved there in the late ’50s, when he was four. It was very attractive to my parents. Very under-developed. It looked to them like Puerto Rico.”
His Suffolk County home was “very Puerto Rican, with rice and beans every night, and Puerto Rican music. Outside, everything was America: rock and roll, the sixties, Kent State, JFK, Vietnam. After awhile, the folk ballads of Puerto Rico didn’t have as much power as the Stones. I was hungry for American culture; I couldn’t get enough of it. I wanted to be an American teenager more than anything else. At the time, I thought Puerto Rican culture was quaint and old-fashioned. Since I became an adult, I appreciate my culture… I grew up with no literary culture from my parents; they were virtually illiterate. I discovered writing on my own as an adult.”
Rivera’s writing has been widely appreciated. He won a Rockefeller Foundation grant, a National Endowment for the Arts grant, and a Fullbright Arts Fellowship in playwriting, which included a year at the Royal Court Theatre. Of his London experience, Rivera says: “The paradox was, I took away a profound new respect for American playwrights. The British criticize Americans for excessive emotions and neurotic behavior. They’re just the opposite. British plays are often witty, but soulless. American writing is about the creator and his obsessions. I find that more dramatic. New American playwrights have more vitality, more chutzpah. It made me proud to be an American writer.”
In 1989, Rivera studied screenwriting at the Sundance Institute under Nobel Prize-winner Gabriel García Márquez. (“A wonderful man,” Rivera reports. “Very earthy, unpretentious, very humble”). Not surprisingly, in its recent debut at Louisville’s Humana Festival for New American Plays, “Cloud Tectonics” was described as “a Marquesian fable” (Ben Brantley, New York Times) laced with magical realism.
“Magical realism,” explains Rivera, “is more an outlook on life than a literary style. It’s a belief system. [In Latin cultures] there’s a very thin line between life and death. The dead are among us. Supernatural forces have day-to-day reality. That’s so un-American. But that’s what I got at home. There’s a rational part of me that dismisses it. But there’s still a part of me that’s gullible… There’s at least one unbelieving, skeptical character in everything I write. Someone who says, ‘Get out of here with that magic.’ But that character’s is always the minority view.”
Magic notwithstanding, Rivera doesn’t deny his focus on impending disaster. In “Cloud Tectonics”, there are “a lot of threatening signs, a lot of discussion about the Big Earthquake. A feeling of dread and uncertainty in the air.” That’s a direct reflection of his life in L.A. with his wife and two children, ages 3 and 7. “That’s what life can be like here. We do have beautiful days, but there’s a constant, subconscious fear.”
Because of his cataclysmic themes, Rivera feels that audiences often misunderstand his work. “My plays are always comedic. Some critics take them very seriously. Part of it may be cultural. The humor is very Latin, exaggerated, far-fetched. It’s a process of education, exposure. People have to know it’s okay to laugh.”
©1995 Patté Productions Inc.