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Balancing life in two cultures

Nancy Rodriguez is glad to further her portrayal of Yazmin Ortiz in “The Happiest Song Plays Last,” the sequel to last year’s “Water by the Spoonful” at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Such continuance is rare in theater, she says.

“Happiest Song” runs in the Thomas Theatre from July 7 to Nov. 1. Playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes’ trilogy, including the initial “Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue,” follows the life of Elliot Ortiz, an Iraq war Marine veteran and Yazmin’s cousin. “Water by the Spoonful" won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Shishir Kurup, who directed OSF's production of "Water by the Spoonful," returns for "Happiest Song."

Yaz’s story and Rodriguez' life are not without parallels. Both come from American Puerto Rican culture, Rodriguez from Brooklyn and Ortiz from Philadelphia. They also have careers in the arts.

Hudes, of Philadelphia, tracks Elliot through all three plays, with Yaz in the latter two. At the end of “Water,” Yaz purchases a Philadelphia house that was owned by Ginny, the aunt who raised Elliot and has just died. Ginny always had a pot of beans and rice for everyone and was involved in countless efforts to improve the community.

Yaz is an adjunct music professor raised in a middle-class community who retains strong ties with her extended family. Recently divorced, she hasn’t reached her dreams of a family and academic tenure. The story is a quest for identity, Rodriguez believes, as Yaz attempts to balance life in two cultures.

“She’s trying to go into the culture that her family took her out of,” says Rodriguez. “She’s really trying to figure out how to take the mantle. She kind of starts into Ginny’s role, but she can’t do it the same way.”

Music is central to the drama. Puerto Rican folk music underlies the story. While on the surface the music is lively and danceworthy, says Rodriguez, the lyrics always have been ones of social protest.

“This play has more of a political perspective. What is the person’s responsibility to the community?” Rodriguez asks.

Yaz helps anyone in the neighborhood, and at one point she holds a press conference to decry a patient’s treatment at a hospital. But at the end of the play, Yaz retreats from always leaving the front door open and having food ready for anyone.

“I think she takes a step back in that she may be trying to do so much,” says Rodriguez. “When I first looked at (the script), I kind of felt sad for her.”

Hudes says Elliot and Yaz are like siblings. Rodriguez explains that first cousins in Puerto Rican communities are referred to as “brother cousins.”

“It’s an important thing for the actor doing Yaz to see Elliot’s trajectory,” says Rodriguez. Daniel Jose Molina, who portrayed Elliot last year but is now on Broadway, has been replaced by Daniel Duque-Estrada.

Yaz and Elliot are on stage together only at the start and end of the play. Otherwise they connect through Skype, as Elliot is acting in a movie in Jordan, where his wartime nightmares haunt him. At times, the computer images pixelate during their conversation, Rodriguez notes.

Rodriguez was born into a poor section of Brooklyn, but later was raised in another neighborhood by her working-class parents. Through an art school, she discovered acting and became the first person in her family to undertake higher education.

Rodriguez says unlike Yaz, she is not ready to return to her roots.

“I’m not as bold as Yaz,” she says.

Tony Boom is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach him at tboomwriter@gmail.com.

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Agustin, played by Armando Duran, left, makes a surprising request of Yaz, played by Nancy Rodriguez in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's 'The Happiest Song Plays Last.' Photo courtesy of Jenny Graham