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Be Present in the Memory • Honoring María Irene Fornés on World Alzheimer's Day
Brian Eugenio Herrera's #TheatreClique Newsletter for September 21, 2023
WELCOME to #TheatreClique — my irregular newsletter dedicated to clinking out to some of the most interesting, intriguing & noteworthy writing about drama, theatre & performance (at least, so says me). Thanks to all for your continuing patience as I do my best to tune into a new form/at for this irregular missive amidst myriad colliding writing deadlines, editing tasks, and other attention-snaring obligations…
This Week's #TheatreCliquery:
Today’s post is offered in recognition of #WorldAlzheimersDay — in tandem with the efforts of Howlround, the Latinx Theatre Commons and The Fornés Institute — to lift the memory of playwright María Irene Fornés, whose lived experience with the disease defined her final years. They are inviting all to share their reflections on the life and legacy of María Irene Fornés and to — always — BE PRESENT IN THE MEMORY.
EDITOR’S NOTE: whenever possible, whenever I link to pieces posted behind a paywall, I do so using the “gift” function that certain publications now afford subscribers. So clicking out to articles in the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal should neither present hassle nor burn through your monthly allotment of free views. Here’s hoping more outlets — hello LATimes! — adopt similar technologies soon...
#NowClickThis (Fornesiana Edition)…
Highlighting some noteworthy recent or upcoming engagements with the life, work and legacy of legendary playwright, director and teacher María Irene Fornés...
at the blog of the National Endowment for the Arts, playwright/teacher (and Fornés student) Migdalia Cruz writes about the “magic of theatre” • at BroadwayWorld, playwright/teacher (and Fornés student) Elaine Romero talks about how “culture, border history, human rights” inflect the immersive experience of her latest play • Fort Lauderdale’s ThinkingCap Theatre is readying to launch their adventurous production of Tango Palace (1963) over Halloween weekend • Evelyn Brown, A Diary (1980) — long thought to be among the most irretrievable of the Fornés works — arrived again to the stage thanks to years of research and rehearsal by the intrepid team of director Alice Reagan and dramaturg Gwendolyn Alker. Their reconstruction of Evelyn Brown at NYC’s LaMama saw a triumphantly successful (if brief) run early this summer. The production was also documented in a host of outlets, with a richly informative feature story from Scott T. Cummings in AmericanTheatre; an enlightening interview with Alker at HollywoodSoapBox; a constellation of thoughtful reviews from Christian Lewis at TheatreMania, Lauren Novek at ExeuntNYC, Mark Rifkin at twi-ny, & David Barbour at Lighting&SoundAmerica; and, from Howlround, a fascinating reunion conversation among some of Fornés original collaborators — including 2023 Henry Hewes nominee Donald Eastman, recognized for his work on this production…
and filmmaker/advocate Michelle Memran has made her 2018 film The Rest I Make Up free to view for the next few days only. (Or rent-to-view at Amazon anytime.) Read NewYorker film critic Richard Brody’s rave review or click below for the film’s trailer.
and, finally, I’ve decided share a little piece I wrote a little more than a decade ago and published at my old blog per•for•mations on March 24, 2013. I have decided to republished it here without revision, so as to “Be Present in the Memory” of…
Irene’s Touch (March 2013)
I have felt the touch of María Irene Fornés in my life for nearly three decades. The force of her plays, her students, her writing exercises, and her legend has stealthily shaped my critical and creative sensibility in fundamental and sometimes astonishing ways. Even though I never studied or worked with her. Even though I neither directed nor acted in any of her plays. Even though I never met María Irene Fornés.
Yesterday, I visited María Irene Fornés in the long-term care facility where she now lives. For the last handful of years, I had been vaguely aware that Fornés was suffering Alzheimer’s but, over the last few months, I became more acutely conscious of her journey within the disease due to concerns articulated by her longtime friends, students and collaborators regarding the circumstances of her care. I joined the Facebook group they organized and began checking it, somewhat obsessively, for updates.1 I plotted how long the drive would be from New Jersey (where I now live) to the small town in upstate New York (where she then resided). I knew I would find the time to make the trip somehow.
Because I knew I would visit her. I could. And I would. I just was not sure when or how.
Then, a week or three ago, I happened to be on a conference panel with Migdalia Cruz, the award-winning playwright long mentored by Irene.2 Migdalia and I have enjoyed a glancing, off-and-on acquaintance since the early 1990s and, as I was making a hurried exit from the conference, Migdalia and I shared a brisk goodbye.
“Now that you’re in New Jersey, we’ll have to get together,” she said.
“Will you introduce me to Irene?”
I was startled by my own forthrightness. Migdalia’s direct reply shocked me not at all.
“Let’s do it.”
So a kind of contract was made, between Migdalia and me, in that moment, fortifying the commitment I made to myself months earlier.
I was going to visit Irene.
And, yesterday, I made my pilgrimage. Migdalia and I agreed to meet at the facility in New York City where Irene now lives. I told few of my plans. Mostly, because I did not know how to answer the question that did inevitably follow: why would I visit someone I didn’t know in an Alzheimer’s ward? I didn’t have an answer why. I just knew I needed to go. So I went.
Migdalia and I arrived separately but simultaneously to the facility’s security desk. We chatted lightly as she guided me up to the floor where Irene lives. As we stepped from the elevator, Migdalia spied her immediately.
“There she is!”
It took me a moment to find Irene amidst the huddle of admirers gathered in the center of the facility’s dining room. Claudia, Tatiana, Brenda and Robb had come to visit Irene as part of Claudia’s birthday celebration. The other residents scattered throughout the dining room had long-stemmed pink roses, either in their hands or in front of them — each rose taken from the bouquet Claudia brought as a gift for Irene. A gift for which Irene showed little enthusiasm. Until Claudia and her crew began redistributing the roses to everyone in the room. That seemed to please Irene, Tatiana said. Irene held no rose, but petted the plush lavender bear nestled on her lap with an intense, tactile curiosity.
Irene’s admirers had become a crowd, so the staff invited us to reconvene in the television room down the hall. There, we reassembled — Irene in her high-backed wheelchair enthroned at the center, two winged chairs on each side, and one directly in front.
Migdalia nudged me, “You wanna say hi?”
I did. Yet I didn’t. My shyness felt peculiar. I didn’t want or need to say “Hi-I’m-Brian.” I did want to express my fondness and admiration with a greeting of some sort. I just didn’t know how. Yet.
So I hovered. Observing Irene as she received the attention lavished on her. As she listened to Argentinian songs. As she plucked at the strings on the mandolin that Migdalia’s husband Jim brought. As she rubbed her fingers on the bear, on her hair, on her face. As she spoke and sang occasionally in something like Spanish. As she barked commands in what was clearly a version of English (“No standing! I don’t [k]no[w] standing!”). As she transformed (with just a twist and a tear) the plastic bib placed around her neck into a couture collar
My hovering brought me somehow to stand behind the the winged chair, just above Irene’s left shoulder. The papercup of Ensure was offered again and I was in the position to help. My one hand rested at the nape of her neck and my other guided the cup to her lips for a series of happy sips.
My hand stayed as the nearly empty cup was taken away. My palm rested in hers. The tips of my fingers tickled the base of her forearm. I felt her long delicate fingers push on my wrist. I glided my palm across hers, letting my fingers linger a little in her palm. My fingertips touched the fleshy folds of her slender hands, tracing shapes without form inside her slightly cupped hand. Our palms flirted a little, bouncing into and away from each other, pausing for a restful nuzzle from time to time. Her fingers fiddled inside my palm before going still and seeming to beckon my fingers to tickle back. She even lifted my hand to her face and rubbed it to her cheek. The depth of our touch was electrifying — that surging, pungent openness of anonymous yet intimate touch.
Even as Irene and I palmed these tiny caresses, she received other offerings. Marilyn bestowed besos. Claudia and Tatiana massaged Irene’s lovely legs. Jim led everyone in a rousing chorus of “When the Saints Go Marching In.” Irene sang songs that may have been old or brand new. Ours was a circle of adoration in constant, quiet, exuberant motion.
Before long, though, the circle slowed to release the conjurers to their next destinations and, in what felt like an instant, Marilyn — the actress who helped to create some of the most iconic Fornés roles — and I were left alone with Irene. Marilyn expressed her surprise that I had never met Irene before.3
“Seeing you together — I thought sure you had known her for years.”
“Migdalia says she knows none of us, so she can know us all.”
Marilyn and I nodded at the mystery of all this. I held Irene’s gaze as I tried to explain to Marilyn the ways I had felt Irene’s touch in my life for a long long time. As I spoke, I could feel Irene’s eyes on me. Absorbing something. I have no inkling what. Irene’s expression was enigmatic but vivid. Perplexed interest? Bemused distraction? It seemed almost as if she might be thinking, “How peculiar it is that you are…”
I felt Irene’s gaze as palpably as I felt her palm. I also felt it was time to go. Irene was tired. Together, Marilyn and I returned the chairs, including Irene’s, to the dining room. There, I said goodbye with a tiny beso to Irene’s glowing forehead.
As I landed on the sidewalk outside, and saw the crisp spring sky, my hovering shy tears finally pressed to the surface.
La maestra continues to guide me. Even from within dementia’s thrall, she’s still nudging me — to discern the poetry inside the shape of a sensation — to feel the depth of emotions that have no explanation — and to open myself to experience the blessing of Irene’s touch.
Until next time, dear #TheatreClique, please share this newsletter with those friends, colleagues and students who might appreciate the opportunity to encounter the many voices gathered in each week’s edition. Errors and oversights published in the newsletter will be corrected in the archival versions. And, in the meantime, keep clicking those links — good writing needs good readers, and our theatre clicks count!