The Message of Capeman

by C.J.

Revolutionary Worker #949, March 22, 1998

A week or two ago while passing through the supermarket check-out, I caught Paul Simon's picture staring up from the cover of the Daily News. My heart sank at the screaming headline: "Paul's $11M Flop--Curtains for `Capeman,' One of the Biggest Losers on Broadway." The Latino man bagging the groceries opened his own copy of the paper, shaking his head in dismay and disbelief: "With Marc Anthony and Ruben Blades--how could it have failed?"

The New York Times should have a pretty good idea of the answer to that question. Their critics led a campaign of annihilation against this inspired new musical. Leaving nothing to chance, the Times printed two major slams against "The Capeman" by high-powered drama critics in their arts pages ("it's like watching a wounded animal die"). Still the Times was not satisfied and had to enlist a third sour individual to crucify the show--this time on their editorial page. Other publications started quoting the Times reviews with uncharacteristic reverence. While most of the mainstream reviewers chose to hide behind belabored (and to my way of thinking, harsh and wrong-headed) artistic critiques of "The Capeman," one critic from New York magazine performed the service of coming straight with his political objections: "The outlaw as hero is a ticklish topic...Robin Hood gains a lot by being a medieval legend rather than a modern-day reality... With Salvador Agron, aka The Capeman, the problem intensifies. He is fact, not fiction."

This kind of nervous attention from the bourgeois media was a tip-off. And knowing that a Broadway show would not likely survive such treatment, I raced to the theatre. As Simon's "Songs from the Capeman" CD foretold, this musical with book and lyrics by Nobel laureate Derek Walcott, the renowned West Indian poet, is in fact full of heart for the people. And it's a damn shame more people will not be able to see it.

Paul Simon has said the musical is about "the possibility of redemption, how redemption can be attained, where the definition comes from..." And whether one loves or hates "The Capeman" has a lot to do with WHO one thinks is redeemable. Or as Mao would say--every class has its political and artistic criteria and every class puts political criteria first.

This story is about Salvador Agron, a young Puerto Rican immigrant. In 1959, two weeks after his 16th birthday, Sal and several fellow gang members stabbed to death two white teenagers they had never met before on a playground in New York City. They had mistaken them for rival Irish gang members from Hell's Kitchen--whose neighborhood was off limits for Puerto Ricans. Sal was wearing a cape, his friend Tony Hernandez (the"Umbrella Man") carried an umbrella. Three days later, the crew was captured in a citywide dragnet. Sal and Tony were quickly sentenced to death in a racist media feeding frenzy. In 1979, after spending many years on death row, Salvador was released from prison, a changed man. This is a true story.

In the two decades since Agron's release, the prison population in the U.S. has tripled. "Three-strikes-you're-out" laws are becoming standard. The percentage of Black and Latino youth in jail is staggering. Kids 10 years old are being jacked up by police and given rap sheets. Some states are executing a person a week. And prosecutors have twisted and mobilized the grief of family members into reactionary movements which grant more murderous powers to the state in the name of "victim's rights." A spirit of punishment for those who are already suffering the most is stalking the U.S. today. In such a climate it was a totally bold move to bring to Broadway--aka "the Great White Way"--a big beautiful musical about a Puerto Rican youth from the barrio who reclaims his humanity by fighting to understand the forces that brought him into the dungeons.

Salvador's journey begins in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico--a small boy growing up on a little green island which dangles above the stage like a miniature paradise with twinkling lights. Why would anyone leave such a place? His destitute mother (played movingly by Ednita Nazario) tries to raise her children there by working in a poor house but the nuns beat Salvador for wetting the bed, and a Santero priest prophesies a terrible future for the young boy. The family joins the flood of Puerto Rican people forced to emigrate to New York City in the '50s...

A gigantic chain link fence descends on the stage in front of black & white newsreel footage of young boys racing breakneck through grim city streets.

We came here wearing summer clothes in winter
Hearts of sunshine in the cold.

But it is not all despair amidst the rubble and towering tenements of their new home. The stage comes alive with styling teenagers who move with grace from gorgeous doo-wop love songs to mambo fight songs.

At about this moment, I become aware of the Puerto Rican family sitting behind me in the theatre--three daughters and their mother. Like a number of folks in the audience, they are cheering and clapping in time and finishing off the Spanish lyrics. The daughters had bought the tickets for their mother as a birthday gift--a chance to see the amazing Marc Anthony who plays Sal as a youth and Ruben Blades, who plays the older Salvador. During intermission, the mother tells me she'd grown up in those days in the Brooklyn projects. She had even known Carlos Apache, one of the gang members. "We thought what they did was wrong, but imagine being told you can't go on someone's block because you're Puerto Rican. This was the way our life was." One of her daughters says of Salvador: "He was not a bad person. The streets got him--like with a lot of kids today."

Sal: The streets were dark with danger
I have to stand up for my friends
In a land where I'm a stranger
And the hatred never ends.

"Capeman" is no simple pageant of good guys vs bad guys. It takes a hard look at the contradictions among the people--never more powerfully than when Sal's mother encounters the mothers of the two dead Irish boys lighting red votive candles in a church sanctuary. The trio trade bitter and anguished verses as Salvador's mother tries to break through the prejudice and desire for revenge of the grieving women.

Esmeralda: "Your son gone to God, mine to blame
My fated son,
He too is gone
The state will see to that, I am sure, Senora

1st Mother: "You Spanish people, you come to this country
Nothing here changes your lives
Ungrateful immigrants asking for pity
When all of your answers are knives.

2nd Mother: "My religion asks me to pray for the murderer's soul
But I think you'd have to be
Jesus on the cross
To open your heart after such a loss.
Can I forgive him?
Can I forgive him?
No, I cannot."

Outside the theater, this argument raged as pro-death penalty groups like "Parents of Murdered Children" picketed and protested that Simon was glorifying a murderer and defiling the memory of their children. Simon responded thoughtfully to these charges. "I came to understand what Salvador Agron was saying about his own view of forgiveness. He always insisted that he had changed, that he had become a better person. But if you say, I'd like to think about that, I'd like to discuss that, a certain number of people will jump at you and say, but what about the victims?... I want to bring your attention back to the possibility of redemption for this person. If at the end of this play, a person goes out and says `I don't care, I still think Salvador Agron was a worthless guy,' okay. But I insist upon--not that I can actually enforce this--but I insist upon an honest examination of this."

As the drama unfolds, we travel with Sal towards an understanding of some of the bigger forces at work--and the violence of the system which tears people's lives apart and sets them against each other. The cold calculation of the racist authorities blasts through in a bizarre press conference held with Sal and Tony right after the arrest. Real-life TV news footage is projected 30 feet high on stage. Barking news reporters pelt the two with"questions": "So you feel like a big man for killing those kids?" Sal:"I feel like killing you, that's what I feel like." And in that moment, as this young man struggles to keep his cool in a media mob with an anti-Puerto Rican political agenda, theatergoers must consider: who are the real criminals?

Sixteen years later, the same badgering TV reporter asks Sal: "What would you say to the parents today--how old are you now?-- 32. They would have a 32-year-old son today, but they don't have a 32-year-old son. How do you deal with a situation like that?" Sal: "That's a very difficult question to answer.... If they would deal with me in a forgiving manner, I would in turn deal with them humanely. And I would always try to deal with them humanely even if they didn't have this forgiving attitude." Reporter: "So you really have no answer for them."

Who among us hasn't lived through or witnessed a dozen such arrogant manipulations by the media or the enforcers? These episodes brought me back to a comment which the writer Toni Morrison made recently about the torment that oppressed peoples have had to endure over the centuries: "I feel that if we can go back and get this history, and make art of it, then the enemy didn't win."

One bit of people's history which "Capeman" retrieves (and the reviewers never stop griping about this) is how the '50s became the '60s, and how the resistance movement of that day shaped Salvador Agron, even while he was locked down on death row.

In 1978, the year before his release, the real Sal Agron described to an interviewer his prison education: "First thing I started studying on death row was the Bible, from there I developed into studying all of the religions of the world, but then I saw that the religions inevitably went into politics, society, sociology, things like that. Hegel, Kant, Spinoza, different philosophers, Descartes, studied them also. From there I went into Marx, Lenin, Mao, started studying world events. Psychology, chemistry, biology and things of that nature they didn't want prisoners to study... The prisoners who started coming in the '60s, they were coming from the Civil Rights movement, the anti-war movement. I was happy when I saw them coming in because there was a chance to direct them to change conditions in the prison. I think of the '60s as a period of Americans facing reality... Today they are afraid of what they saw in the '60s."

In the play, a young woman from the desert who Sal never actually meets represents this new rebel spirit afoot in the country. Wahzinak (played powerfully by Sarah Ramirez) is a Native American woman who has read his prison writings which are being circulated by "those radical organizations." She is moved by this man who traded gangsta ideology for an anti-imperialist philosophy. They correspond and each falls in love with the idea of the other and the power of the movement.

Sal discovers some searing truths about the system from reading and writing but like everyone else, he learns the hardest lessons on an upclose and personal level--like in his "relationship" with an upstate cracker of a prison guard, Virgil, who harasses Sal relentlessly and dreams of getting him in the sights of his Winchester 243 ("I like that gun for deer").

Can someone live through such daily brutality and emerge a conscious and humane person?

Sal: "The politics of prison are a mirror of the street.
The poor endure oppression
The police control the state....
I'll take the evil in me and turn it into good
Though all your institutions never thought I could."


Unfortunately, there has been a kind of celebration of the shutting down of "Capeman" among some progressive artists and activists. You hear resentment of Paul Simon, a feeling that anything Simon touched would by definition be a cooptation of the people's culture. Many making such critiques have never seen the show, and sadly, many now never will.

Clearly such sentiments arise from the intense discrimination faced by artists of the oppressed nationalities (including a whole history of ripoff and cooptation). And for me, this is one more reason we need a revolution--so that people will have the power to achieve real equality and a flowering of the rich cultures of peoples of color. But in the process of uniting our forces to fight for equality--and to overthrow this system for real--how do we greet an artist who does collaborative works that powerfully bring to life the experiences of the people? Does that help or hurt our cause? And I would ask who among the oppressed could possibly benefit from "Capeman" being driven from the stage by alien forces who know nothing about the culture and the conditions the people have to deal with?

Juan Gonzalez, a Daily News columnist and longtime supporter of Mumia Abu-Jamal, said this about "Capeman": "Simon has done something Broadway has never attempted. He has showcased Puerto Rico's greatest contribution to the world's culture: its music--from the aguinaldos of the island's mountains to the bomba and plena of the coast, from the mambo to the doo-wop and hip hop music of New York's streets..."

"The Capeman" is the result of collaborations by Simon with some of the finest Puerto Rican musicians in the world. Before the opening of "The Capeman" Simon told a writer from RhythmMusic magazine: "At about the time I had the idea of `The Capeman,' I had met Eddie Palmieri and struck up a friendship. At one point I was asking him some things, and he said, `I would be honored to be your teacher,' and I said `Well, I would be honored to be your student.'<|>"

Simon first made this kind of collaboration with South African musicians on the very beautiful Graceland album, created over a decade ago and continued with Rhythms of the Saints in Brazil. Work on Graceland stirred a hornet's nest of controversy. Simon: "...We had those arguments and multicultural, cross-cultural artistic work is very common now. It goes on all the time and can't be stopped. We live right next to each other. We have to begin speaking each other's languages." Simon is respectful about his collaborations, "You are a guest, so there are rules of how to be the kind of guest that people would like to invite back." You have to be respectful of other people's ways. But for me, as a musician, how could you not be respectful? The cultures are so rich, so bountiful, it's a privilege."

"We've all worked together and believed in this project," Simon told RhythmMusic. "It has been more than a job for everybody. This wasn't a `gig.' We are not just looking to have a hit. Sure, we hope we do, but if we do and we are not satisfied artistically, I think it wouldn't be satisfying."

To counter the malicious gossip circulating about the show, one of the stars, Ednita Nazario, took the unusual step of issuing a statement: "I have to say that my take, as a member of the cast, has been completely different than what I was reading. We all feel a very solid sense of accomplishment. We all believe in the show, we think it's a wonderful piece and we're proud of the job we did."

These sentiments were seconded by Sarah Ramirez (Wahzinak) in the lobby of the Marquis Theatre after a recent show. She was surrounded by a very cool and unusual assortment of theatregoers: Alongside the enthusiastic fur coat brigade were four young college women from Missouri (major Paul Simon fans), a Black couple, several Puerto Rican youth who looked a lot like Sal and Tony--all of them outraged by the closing of a show that had moved them to laughter and tears. The Black woman commented: "You know, we don't come to Broadway much because we don't see ourselves on stage. But when finally a great show comes out with all these people of color, it's gone before we even have a chance to catch it."


A friend recently told me about someone he used to visit in prison, Eddie, another Puerto Rican youth who grew up in the same prisons with Salvador Agron. They became friends and comrades behind bars. Eddie had come to the U.S. with his parents as a child. They never could make it here, went broke and had to return home. But Eddie who was 12 at the time, remained, knowing nothing but grinding poverty awaited him in Puerto Rico. He lived in the streets until a landlord offered him $5,000 to set fire to one of his buildings. Two old people died in the blaze. Eddie was put away for years, the landlord got a small fine. My friend used to visit and write Eddie regularly in prison as he grew to be a resister. Then Eddie disappeared. The officials don't know or won't say what happened.

We will never know the end of Eddie's story. And there are thousands of Eddies. But by giving us Sal's story and putting his culture on the stage, "The Capeman" dared to give those lucky enough to see it a way of understanding the life of such a man--and the endless and surprising possibilities we have for transforming ourselves and this world.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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