One of the oldest and most distinguished Spanish language theaters in the U.S. is housed in a converted Manhattan brownstone. “It started actually as a private house,” explains Robert Federico, executive producer of Repertorio Español.
The space is tiny — rickety wooden stairs lead backstage and small props are stored in the hallway. The sets are designed to be stashed flush against walls behind black curtains.
The New York company presents hundreds of performances a year. In May, Repertorio Español will celebrate its 50th anniversary with Exquisita Agonía, a world premiere by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Nilo Cruz.
Repertorio Español was the brainchild of several exiled Cuban women — their idea was to present classic Spanish plays in Spanish, says Federico, who joined the company a few years later.
“When we started in 1968, most of the actors and artists and audiences were exiles from dictatorships at that time,” Federico says. “Argentina and Chile, Uruguay and Cuba, [some fled] the violence in Colombia. Over the years, it’s become less so, as democracy flourished in Latin America, and more economic exiles from the Dominican Republic and Mexico. And, of course, there were always a huge community of Puerto Ricans here.”
As the company and community grew, so did the offerings — Repertorio has commissioned adaptations of Latin American novels and new plays.
“I think Repertorio is a little gem in this city, in this country,” says playwright Nilo Cruz. “The work that they’re doing is very special.”
Cruz has had three plays produced here and was asked to write a fourth, specifically for the 50th anniversary.
“One of the things that fascinates me about Repertorio is what they’re able to do with their space and how they’re able to transform it,” he says. “But I find that with all their projects, language is the most important thing.”
Cruz became the first Latino playwright to receive the Pulitzer Prize for drama when his play Anna in the Tropics won in 2003. It was produced on Broadway in English and Cruz translated it to Spanish for Repertorio. For non-Spanish speaking audiences, Repertorio provides simultaneous translations as text on a small screen on the back of the seats.
“Any actor in the Hispanic world wants to come to work here because it’s a great honor to be part of this company,” says actor Germán Jaramillo, who is from Colombia. He currently stars in Repertorio’s production of El coronel no tiene quien le escriba, based on a novella by Gabriel García Márquez.
Luis Carlos de la Lombana, who was born in Spain, has been a company member at Repertorio for 10 years. “We can be like a little embassy of the Latino reality, not only in New York, but in Latin America and South America,” he says. “That really transports you there — it’s a great thing.”
More than one third of Repertorio Español’s performances are for student audiences, as part of the company’s active education program.
“How amazing that these young people are being introduced to Gabriel García Márquez, to [Federico García] Lorca,” says Cruz. “How wonderful that in this country and through this theater, the young people get to know some of the Spanish classics and some of the new work.”
Their parents appreciate it, too. Members of a book club, made up of parents from a local middle school, come to the theater every year to see adaptations of novels they’ve read. Most recently, it was El coronel.
“We read the book, so when Repertorio decided to make the play, we said we have to be there!” says book club member Angela Silverio. “Repertorio always does a great job.”