This article is part of a journal series producing new writing and multimedia about the twenty-one-year artistic collaboration between Pregones Theater and Roadside Theater. The collaboration bridges two vast geographies and cultures, Puerto Rican and Appalachian, and two distinct aesthetics. Our series explores the creation of BETSY!, a musical about a Bronx Jazz singer and performer uncovering the secrets of her family’s history. Join us for discussion with artists and scholars about creating works of art that probe beyond clichés into the frayed ends of American pluralism. —Jamie Haft and Arnaldo J. López
Before asking me if I was interested in the role, Rosalba Rolón, Pregones Theater’sartistic director, told me the history of BETSY!’s development—how it began as a one-person play in the mountains of Appalachia, traveled south to the Nashville Jazz Workshop and became a three-person musical with a band, and then in 2004 arrived on the doorstep of La Casa Blanca in the Bronx. She talked about the threads that connect Appalachian musical culture and Puerto Rican musical culture, and about Pregones’ twenty-one-year artistic collaboration on new plays with Appalachia’sRoadside Theater. When she asked me if I would play the role of Betsy, I accepted without even reading the script. There was no hesitation whatsoever. I actually started screaming, I was so happy.
A week later Rosalba introduced me as the new Betsy at the event Let’s Talk aboutBETSY!. I still hadn’t read the script, but I had heard several of the soulful songs, and I sang one that night with Elise Santora.
The play begins in Ireland where a fourteen-year-old Irish milkmaid is seduced by a sailor. She sails with him to America in 1794, and upon arrival in Philadelphia—the shining beacon of freedom—is promptly sold with her just-born child into indentured servitude. I’ve always felt—not even knowing that much of the history—that the Irish were the Puerto Ricans of Europe. Island to island, and now mountain to mountain.
Only yesterday on our flight to the Appalachian Mountains did I read the script in its entirety. I was extremely emotional after reading it. To feel the satisfaction of Betsy embracing her complete self as a Swindel and as a Garcia, and recognizing all the generations in her blood, and perhaps finally inhabiting her body, was exciting and powerful. The past embracing the present for the future and forever without shame, answering the age-old question: “Y tu Abuela donde esta?” “And your grandmother? Where is she?”
We're still in development of the second act, so we’ve been sitting for hours reading through it and bouncing ideas off each other. It's amazing to have the entire team be so open to suggestions. An idea hatches: “Why don’t you, Caridad, begin the second act by recapping what you’ve encountered in the first act?” My character turns to the band members, says, "Did you just see that? See what has been happening? Did you not just see?” They shrug. They haven’t seen one thing that happened in the first act. Betsy recaps:
Papers, papers, Lady of the Papers
Letters on her dress.
Borders, borders, on the borders
Painful stories to express
Spirit - Man, Man - Spirit
Spoke of milking maids
Dancing bastards all around
Swindel tavern trade
A Cumberland land
Alone is man and all were mountain slaves
From Ireland to Borinquen
Coal miners and bar maids
Music, music, all is music
The key to set us free
I saw her face for the first time
Mami’s face revealed to me
On this trip, I met Ron Short in person, and he played his music—it was his family story and one-person performance that launched BETSY!. I am brought to tears several times, not even just by his singing, but by his spirit and authenticity. It's been a beautiful experience. Being in these mountains has inspired so much creativity. I have written a new poem I would like to share.
So many have tried to climb this peak, it might be the glistening in the distance that speaks, perhaps the wind is convincingly sweet, meek or taken as weak. When asked why they would attempt to climb so high, they answered because she was there.
They climbed up and back down to acclimate to the thinning air. It is hard to breathe up here. I have strained for a lung full where the wind squeezed me in its grip, iced my tears as it whipped.
There is a cemetery of bones here, those that were so determined to reach the top but dropped to the depths of life. I have stripped climbers of toes, limbs, and lives. Still I am the mountain that some attempt to rise, determined they know the trick or have luck on their side. Though I cannot deny that some stole a peek while my head was in the clouds. Still I laugh out loud with the tide as I have watched some tumble, knowing deep down they never were equipped enough to build a fire under. Still I watched in wonder, with the hopes of being able to exalt forthright.
My height was brought about by my faults, pushed beyond measure. I have cracked from the pressure. The scars are visible so you see I am not completely invincible. Parts of me have crumbled to the wayside through the years. Some have kept pieces of my rock as souvenirs. Broken bits off but I am still whole, despite what I may have given, despite of what they stole. I am millions of years old and still I grow. Each year I am taller as I lift up the snow. I am the fountain, the limestone, the marble, the granite. Toxic touches have made me panic, but I have learned not to grow frantic and keep reaching new heights of fantastic.
Now as the plane climbs over the mountains pointed toward the Bronx, I feel my grandmother, all my grandmothers, right here with me. We are all together, all the spirits, all my ancestors within me. We are all together, and together, like Betsy, we want to be free.