Maribel Martinez & Ashley Marie Ortiz in "Las Borinqueñas." Photo by Valerie Terranova.

Q&A: Nelson Diaz-Marcano

The playwright premieres “Las Borinqueñas” at Ensemble Studio Theatre

Written by:
Nella Vera
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Ensemble Studio Theatre’s newest production, “Las Borinqueñas,” is a fascinating look at the origin of the birth control pill.  While it was revolutionary and life changing for generations of women, the story behind the brave women who participated in the scientific trials for the contraceptive pill in the 1950s has not been told.  Playwright Nelson Diaz-Marcano’s play, directed by Rebecca Aparicio, opens this month and looks at the group of Puerto Rican women “who risked everything for the chance to live free.”

What inspired you to write “Las Borinqueñas”?  Are the characters based on real people? 

To be honest, the women in my life. I believe Puerto Rican culture still exists today because of our mothers, our sisters, our partners, our friends. They remind us every day of who we are. My mother woke up every day while suffering a debilitating illness and made sure this kid got an education even when she couldn’t move. I come from a place so country, that if I wanted eggs for breakfast, I had to get them from the nest. For somebody like that to be opening a play Off-Broadway is very rare. Without her, my grandmother, and my sister that would have not happened. So, I wanted to write a story that showed not only their resilience, but that celebrated the spirit that kept them alive. These characters are based on them and many other women that were in my life. The bochincheras that made me laugh, the tias that kept me spiritually fed, and the many others that helped shape who I am. They are my inspiration. 

Guadalís Del Carmen, Hanna Cheek, & Paul Niebanck in Las Borinqueñas. Photo by Valerie Terranova.

What was the process of researching the topic like? Did anything surprise you as you delved deeper into the facts?

It was both eye opening and harrowing. While the history of how Doctor Pincus managed to create the birth control pill is pretty well known, it was hard to find information on the women that participated in the trials. So many people I knew could have been part of it, and some were, but nobody talked about it. It was a part of their history they were ashamed to talk about. Being able to find the information between the lines and construct what these women really had to deal with was the challenge. Realizing how bad it was not just surprising, but heartbreaking. Just to give some perspective, the dose women take regularly today is 10 times less potent than what these women took initially. That’s just the tip of the iceberg.

The topic and themes of “Las Borinqueñas” are timely and relevant today.  When did you begin writing this play?

I started writing it in 2020 when I got the Sloan commission, but it’s been in my mind since 2017. I wrote a play about the Puerto Rican revolt of 1951, and during that time I had delved deeper into not only the trials, but the other science related atrocities that were done to my people. It made me realize how deeply connected science was to the colonization and assimilation of my culture. 

How do you approach writing about a situation that, at the time, followed societal norms but when viewed through a modern lens, are problematic and unethical?

I love this question but I have to disagree with the sentiment here. Even at the time this was considered unethical which is why they hid it from the government and church, then went to lie about the side effects.  I think the real hard part about writing this show in particular is having to explore the fact that this pill is a miracle, that in fact did a lot for women’s rights to move forward, but still was created on the back of black and brown bodies. They chose Puerto Rico because they couldn’t do mass trials in the mainland of the United States. Even though they try to hide it from history, the truth is that even by the standards of the time this was considered  unethical. It was important, it was necessary but that doesn’t take away the pain it cost on the way to get made. The nuance of the piece is celebrating both the achievement of the scientist and the spirit from the women while also showing the ugliness that colonialism creates. 

How did this collaboration with EST come about?

This one is the easiest one, haha. I proposed the play and they liked the proposal. They commissioned my work and we’ve been improving it since we had the first reading of the play 3 years ago. They brought in the Latinx Playwright Circle and Boundless Theater after they got the green light for the production and the rest is history.

Pictured: Maribel Martinez & Ashley Marie Ortiz in “Las Borinqueñas.” Photo by Valerie Terranova

This play was commissioned by the Sloan Foundation – tell us about their mission and what it means to you to be associated with them.

Funny story, the first time I ever did anything on a theater stage was as an actor. I was doing Theresa Rebeck’s “Omnium Gatherum” at Stony Brook University 20 years ago. The play was in rep with this fantastic play called “Proof”. I wasn’t a theater kid in high school so I was just starting to learn what theater was and “Proof” was fundamental for me to see what could be explored in the format. “Proof” was a Sloan commission. So, it feels a bit full circle right now, and it is such an honor to have a play of mind be part of the same history as this play and other work like “Copenhagen” and “Behind the Sheets.”

Their main mission is to create compelling narratives from the world of science and technology which can be extremely taxing. Figuring out how to provide the information accurately while making an entertaining/gripping theatrical experience at the same time can be overwhelming but the EST staff is there every step of the way helping shape the work and providing support in many ways through the process.  (Shout out to Linsay Firman and Graeme McMillan who have been there since day one.) To be associated with this is an incredible honor for me.

You work with many playwrights through your position as Literary Director of the Latinx Playwright Circle which helps to develop and elevate the work of Latinx writers. Yet, Latinx artists and voices continue to be underrepresented in the American theater – how can we make progress in this area? 

Support Latine work! Unapologetically buy tickets to shows by Latine artists but don’t stop there, share on social media aggressively, help spread the word as much as you can, and freak out about it as much as you do famous people’s work. One of the things I noticed while working for other Off-Broadway theaters and consulting with regional theaters is that they expect the Latine audiences to come to the theaters while making very minimal effort to reach out to them. They make it their “Latine/POC ” show of the season and treat it like it’s different and think they are making it special, but what they are really doing is isolating audiences while not marketing the play to the communities they are trying to represent. This creates a circle where BIPOC shows end up underselling and are thought of as flops. It creates the false narrative that Latine audiences don’t like theater. 

What I’ve learned is that it is not that hard to get both types of audiences interested in the same production when you respect the culture while also inviting others to experience it. These are American stories, created by American people about their experience and history. They bring different perspectives, different styles and are the catalyst of moving the medium forward. If promoted correctly, they actually have such a great reach—it always surprises people.  Last year when we co-produced “Sancocho” by Christin Cato with WP Theater, we had to extend the show because it was selling out every production. People were coming to see the show then bringing their families! We had so many people mention how they felt seen, even when they were not Latine, that they had to bring people to experience it. For many, it was their first theatrical experience. It was not rare to hear “I didn’t know they made theater with our people in it.” A month later we had “Vamonos” extend twice at INTAR, a play that was as much in Spanish as it was in English. You don’t get to expand shows in NYC with just one demographic. Time and time we hear that our shows don’t sell or that their audiences won’t get it when, in reality, if the effort is made, audiences show up. If there is one thing we learned, it’s that numbers matter and now there’s proof these shows sell when they are supported, when they are respected, when they feel more than an obligation. 

 It takes work to even make people aware. But the biggest lift we can do, and what we hope becomes encouraged in other cities, is building a strong community of artists, patrons, producers, directors, dancers, actors… So that we come together for moments around singular shows. We have developed over 50 full length Latine plays at the LPC, many have gone on to be produced and gain awards. One of them just beat a Tracy Letts show in Chicago! That’s the power we can have, we just need the right support, and they fly. 

In your own work, what are you most interested in writing about – are there common themes or topics of interest?

My interest fluctuates constantly because life is long and keeping it to one thing seems very limiting, but at the moment, my main interest seems to be in exploring and chronicling the Puerto Rican/United States relationship. And this includes many things, from racism to how the diaspora keeps culture alive. How we keep our identity stay against colonization. But I think more importantly, how people find joy when the world seems crushing because it is there you find how not just to survive, but how to thrive. I believe we need to learn how to do that in this country.

“Las Borinqueñas” runs until April 28, 2024 at Ensemble Studio Theatre. Tickets and information here.

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