Lucero play a step to resolving hate, intolerance

Actors with Teatro Experimental Yerbabruja perform in the

Actors with Teatro Experimental Yerbabruja perform in the play "What Killed Marcelo Lucero" at Wyandanch High School. (March 25, 2010) (Credit: Newsday/Thomas A. Ferrara)

Some of the teens laughed during the first attack. But there came a point during a performance of "What Killed Marcelo Lucero" at Wyandanch Memorial High School last week when the entire audience fell silent.

It was hard watching men, an older woman and a child being set upon by a knot of teens. Who knocked them to the ground. Called them names. Destroyed their property. Took their money. Kicked them.

Art helps us see the world for what it is. The heaven that surrounds us, and the hell. At its best, art kicks through the ambiguity of everyday life to force our attention to a single, unambiguous point. With this play, the result is awful clarity.

It was, frankly, chilling to watch residents - who are not professional actors - of Central Islip, Brentwood and Patchogue, along with Stony Brook University students, recreate real events. What unfolded onstage included scenes from neighborhoods I've visited, dialogue from people I've interviewed.

One character is a politician who speaks, verbatim, words that elected officials in Suffolk County - including County Executive and New York State gubernatorial hopeful Steve Levy - really used.

At one point, a large group of Latinos living together in one house are summarily tossed out into the street. That really happened.

There's a scene where a man describes an attack on Marcelo Lucero, using the descriptive language I'd heard in a Riverhead courtroom not 24 hours earlier. Watching the play, it becomes obvious that a witness, Angel Loja - who never told his account to the press or in an open court until last week - told his story to friends long before the rest of us heard it.

The play, like the ongoing second-degree murder as a hate crime trial in Riverhead, opens a window into the lives of immigrants living underground on Long Island. It becomes oddly fascinating watching everyday local life through other eyes.

Last week in court, for example, Loja described his attackers as "the Americans" and told of how he talked Lucero out of going to a local bar on the night he died because "there would be more than just us there" and "that would mean trouble."

In the play, actors playing immigrants carted their belongings in pillowcases; rented almost every room in a house to raise mortgage money; made an altar to Our Lady of Guadalupe in the backyard; danced around a handkerchief flung to the ground during a Fourth of July party.

But there's also another side represented in the play, the American side: Where neighbors complain about crowded housing and noise; about crowds of men who run, shouting "One more! One more!" to contractors prowling for day hires; about taxes being wasted on Spanish-speaking children.

Eventually, immigrants end up on one side of the stage, screaming: "Sí, se puede!" - "Yes, we can!" - while Americans line up against them, screaming, "Hop the border, break the law!"

In Suffolk, things went well beyond shouting, as attacks against Latinos escalated from beatings to a firebombing to one night in Patchogue, when seven American teens jumped out of an SUV to surround a man from Ecuador.

It becomes crystal clear that the trial in Riverhead of one young man, Jeffrey Conroy, in the death of Marcelo Lucero is a tragic peak in a long arch of intolerance that should shame us all.

But the playwright, Margarita Espada, isn't interested in shame. She wants solutions. Which is why the play moves on to involve the audience - who, on Thursday, had a frank, calm and fruitful exchange on immigration and relations between Latinos and African-Americans in that community.

The play hasn't been to Patchogue, where Lucero died. Patchogue's mayor, Paul Pontieri, believes the material's probably too raw for a community working to heal. "We lived it," he said, "and with the trial, we are reliving it through news reports every day."

Recently, Pontieri went to see "West Side Story" on Broadway. He found the famous fight scene almost unbearable to watch. "I kept thinking, that was us," he said.

But, Pontieri said, he will go to see Espada's play, which is next scheduled for 7 p.m. April 9 at Adelphi University. "I need to see it," Pontieri said.

So do we all.