Black Latina: The Play (A Life and Work by Crystal Roman)
by Kim Haas
A few weeks ago, I spoke with actress and playwright Crystal Roman. Days after our interview, I sat in the audience viewing her theatrical production Black Latina: The Play.
The feeling of being “Too black for Latinos and too Latino for blacks” is a sentiment not lost on Crystal. In a case of art imitating life, she penned her experiences as a Black Latina in a play that addresses many of her struggles and triumphs.
Crystal’s young life was marked by moments of feeling like an “outsider” or “other.” Her family moved from predominately African American Harlem to living on Staten Island, a primarily white borough of New York City. With this change in residence, certain instances seemed to spark an increasingly disheartening question. As a daughter of a black Puerto Rican mother and a white Puerto Rican father, Crystal was often asked “Where is your mother?” when attending school events. The question was particularly frustrating because her mother was often standing beside her. Many people also voiced their amazement when seeing her mother for the first time. Comments like, “Oh, wow, your mother is black “ were not unusual. According to Crystal, these reactions “made it seem like there was some kind of negative connotation or undertone to my mother.” She says in order to avoid dealing with the question of identity, Crystal decided not to attend high school on Staten Island. Instead, she chose a high school in Manhattan, known for being one of the most racially, ethnically, and linguistically diverse areas in the world.
She also confides that her mother, Lisa, was told as a young girl not to “bring a black man home.” Ironically, Lisa married Pedro, whom Crystal describes as, “a black man trapped in a white man’s body.” Speaking of her father, Crystal says he was deeply rooted in African American culture enjoying the music of the Stylistics and Barry White. Her first concert at the famed Apollo theater was with her father. She credits him with her knowledge of African American culture.
Growing up with Puerto Rican parents of different races may have been challenging at times. Fast forward several years, now Crystal is a mother of two children. At 30 years of age, she is wise, smart, vivacious and more than prepared to delve into the complex world of culture, race, and ethnicity through her theatrical work.
As a playwright, Crystal drew much of the material for Black Latina: The Play from her frustration as an actress whom casting directors had a tricky time identifying and categorizing. She shares what led to the development of the play. “I was tired of the roles. They were always sassy Latina or sex potish or black women always rolling their necks, and just ghetto. I realized there wasn’t anything that I was interested in, that was challenging to me as an actor. When I would go to Latina casting calls for roles that I did find challenging, they would say, ‘Well you don’t sound Latina enough.’ Then when I would go to a Black casting call, they would say, ‘Wait a minute, we asked for a black woman.’ I’d say, I’m a black woman. I just couldn’t take it anymore.”
Encouraged by friends to record her feelings, she realized, “I need to write, I need to write something. So, I just buckled down and just started writing. No shape, no form just writing my feelings on a page and it came out to four different characters (representing anger, sadness, love and empowerment). When I was done, it was such a relief, so therapeutic.” Next, she converted the words on the page into a short play.
This cathartic workout eventually evolved into Black Latina:The Play. From a sense of imprisonment and confinement, to acceptance and self love, the play shows the evolution of the five “Black Latina” actresses. In an effort to showcase a much more representative group of women, Crystal intentionally casted performers of diverse sizes, heights, weights and skin complexions. Included in the cast of five actresses is Judy Torres, the queen of freestyle music.
Black Latina: The Play begins with the five actresses on an unadorned stage in bright orange prison uniforms, a symbol of the “imprisonment” felt by the Black Latinas. In a moment of disappointment for feeling unaccepted as a Black Latina, one of the actresses shares the following sentiment, “It cuts me like a knife, how a whole group of people can be disregarded, not considering their hopes, dreams and views.”
Whether in English, or several monologues performed in Spanish and Portuguese, reflecting the linguistic diversity of Black Latinas, the actors share many painful moments of feeling like outsiders, unaccepted and lost.
As the play progresses, the protagonists begin to reflect on the accomplishments and contributions of Black Latinas. They acknowledge that the careers of singers like Gloria Estefan and Shakira would not have existed without performers like Celia Cruz. The actresses also delighted in recalling savory African inspired dishes such as candied yams, mofongo and rice and beans, eliciting agreement and laughter from the audience.
By the conclusion of the play, the protagonists have evolved into confident, self loving Black Latinas. The last line, recited in unison by all five actresses signifies their journey to self acceptance “I’m a Black Latina and Black is Beautiful.”
Somehow, after speaking with Crystal, I get the sense that the actors’ last line is a phrase she has repeated many times to herself. But for Crystal it’s more than a line from the script, it’s a role she’s prepared for her entire life.