This spring marks the second production in the Goodman’s ongoing collaboration with Teatro Vista, Chicago’s largest Equity theater company dedicated to producing Latino-oriented works in English. Starting April 7, the world premiere of Cándido Tirado’s Fish Men will take to the Owen stage. Set in Manhattan’s Washington Square Park, Fish Men chronicles an afternoon with a group of chess hustlers as they attempt to lure unsuspecting “fish” into high-stakes games for cash. But the action—played out rapid-fire in real time—quickly leads to a series of devastating revelations.
Playwright Cándido Tirado is Teatro Vista’s writer-in-residence this season, and while Fish Men contains only one Latino character, director Edward Torres—also Teatro Vista’s artistic director—maintains that the play’s multiethnic focus is an essential element of its Latino identity. “The urban landscape has shifted dramatically, and I define ‘Latino’ now as being at the center of world cultures—African, indigenous European and Asian—because for me Latino culture is rooted in all these other cultures,” he says. With this shift in the cultural landscape in mind, Fish Men also represents a first step in a change of direction for Teatro Vista towards presenting more multicultural work. Says Torres, “We hope to present the work of fresh Latino writers from their unique perspective and the world they’re living in, which is often at the intersection of many different cultures.”
It is precisely at this intersection of cultures that the Fish Men playwright Tirado spent his formative years. A native-born Puerto Rican, he immigrated to the Bronx at age 11 and came of age in a densely populated neighborhood where people of myriad cultures converged. Just before rehearsals began, he talked to the Goodman’s Lesley Gibson about chess, Latino theater and how his experience as a live witness of the events of 9/11 informed this new play.
Lesley Gibson: What was your initial inspiration for Fish Men?
Cándido Tirado: I’m a chess master myself, and it’s one of my greatest loves. I’d been trying to work on a play about chess and had a lot of false starts. Then one day I was out with a friend and we walked into Washington Square Park and the play came to me like a wave. My initial inspiration was to make the play about hustlers. But man’s inhumanity to man is a big theme in my life, and I’ve always wanted to write about it because that’s a great interest of mine—how we treat each other and how things like genocides happen; there were so many genocides in the twentieth century.
So I decided to try to deal with that subject in the context of a chess hustle, where the hustler is trying to almost dehumanize his opponent, not just over the [chess] board but psychologically to make him feel worthless, to make him feel less-than, to break him down so he’ll be easier to beat. There’s a type of psychological war that happens. So instead of just being a play about playing chess, it becomes about life and death.
LG: Did you spend a lot of time in the park researching and playing chess?
CT: I always go to the park to play. I used to hang out to listen to people talk. Chess players are very funny, and a lot of them are a little bit more than acquaintances; we talk often. So that’s part of my world, whenever I walk in there everybody says, “Hey, Tirado!” And I love that, because it’s like Cheers, where everybody knows your name. They make you feel welcome for a little while, then they just want to play you and try to beat you. But for five minutes it’s good.
LG: Are any of these characters based on actual people you played with in the park?
CT: They’re basically composites of people. Flash is a composite of three different people; I knew a guy who was really brilliant but he dropped out of school and became a hustler. Nobody knew why he dropped out of school, but he was really intellectual, he had a fast mouth and he could beat you with his mouth he talked so much. He was a great trash-talker but he was also nerdy, so in order to create the character Flash I wanted to give him more street toughness. I know another hustler who was more “street” who could confront you—because when you’re hustling you got to get tough. Sometimes the people losing don’t like losing; not everyone wants to give you their money, and sometimes you have to make a stand or a threat. So I wanted to make this character live in both worlds; have a kind of a street toughness and an intellectual side. But some of the other characters are totally fictional or are based on situations I’ve seen that I’ve taken creative license with.
LG: The characters in this play come from all different backgrounds; only one of them is Latino. Do you think of this as a “Latino play”?
CT: I don’t; that’s my quick answer. For me, the central theme of Fish Men is whether human beings are going to continue on this planet. So the characters in the play come from different ethnicities—there’s only one Latino character—but he’s a major character because I wanted to talk about some part of a Latino/Indian genocide that happened. So I don’t consider the play a Latino play, but I’m Latino, and I wrote it so I guess it is.
In this country everybody gets defined by their background. So I’m a Latino playwright in this country. But the plays I write—I like to do more symbolic characters, I like to do metaphorical characters. In Mamma’s Boyz, one of my plays that Teatro Vista just produced, there are three young drug dealers whose names are Mimic, Shine and Thug. Each name means something, but they don’t have to be Latino actors to play them. They could be Italian or Irish or African American; as long as their culture is that of the street, impoverished, where drugs or crime seem like a way out. I had a friend from Italy who saw the play said, “Wow, that seems like me and my two friends.”
LG: You mentioned in a previous interview that you were in lower Manhattan on September 11, 2001; did your experience that day affect your work on this play?
CT: It did, a lot. After the first plane hit I was still going to work—I worked across the street from the second tower that got hit. There was a policeman in the middle of the street—it had just happened—and he was blowing his whistle and telling people, “Don’t go that way,” but people weren’t listening. But he looked me in the eyes and told me not to go where I was going, so I walked away, and about two minutes later the second plane hit; I would have been underneath that building when the second plane hit. With all the glass and parts that were falling I probably would have been really hurt or killed. I ended up walking home across the Brooklyn Bridge, and there was a lot of fear and adrenalin, because at the time I thought, “If they hit the building they’re going to hit the bridge too,” which sounds dramatic now but it’s what I was thinking.
For a while after I got really depressed—coming so close, being there, and then dealing with a lot of survivor’s guilt. It informed me about the play, and about the characters, and how big this thing is—man’s inhumanity to man. There are characters in the play who lost their family; I could never get close to that and I hope I never will, but I got a little taste—a very small taste—of that.
But then at the same time as I was coming out of my depression and my fear and all that stuff, there was kind of a spiritual thing going on in New York. You know, if the recovery workers needed socks, in an hour they had too many socks. If they said, “We need blood,” in an hour they had too much blood, and they kept making announcements, you know: “Stop giving blood, stop giving socks.” So there was this spiritual thing that brought everybody together, and that feeling was amazing. The fear was horrible, but this spiritual thing was amazing, and that informed in me in the play because I think that’s very special in humanity.
LG: Do you think your chess skills seep over into your process as a playwright?
CT: People tell me that the way I think is like a chess player. In chess there’s something called a “trio of analysis.” You analyze a few variations of a move, and each variation has all of these branches, so it could go on forever, but you usually pick the top three responses and analyze them to see which has the best payoff.
And I look at writing like that—I analyze the possible ways of doing something, and sometimes I take the least likely way to get to that place. People tell me all the time, “The way you just made that point is like a chess player.” I really don’t get it because that’s how I think naturally. I’m a playwright; I think about structure and form and how you make a play, and I also know chess and the argument of chess. So maybe writing a play and playing chess are more similar than they appear.