Why you should care
Because art made by those whose choices have winnowed down to “create or die” often make the best case for being alive.
In 1972, Miguel Piñero, a 25-year-old Puerto Rican guy, sat in a cell in upstate New York’s notorious Sing Sing prison.
The armed robbery beef that put him there would have been considered par for the course in New York’s poverty-fueled Lower East Side of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Not unlike his gang membership, drug addictions, hustling, and what was frequently described as his “fluid” sexuality — really just a much more subtle way of saying he also got down with men.
What was a departure was that in the midst of a theater workshop in the prison, Piñero turned out a monster hit.
This was really the first major play scripted by a Puerto Rican to be put on Broadway.
The workshop instructors, Clay Stevenson and Marvin Felix Camillo, encouraged Piñero’s acting and writing, even entering his poems and short plays in contests. When Piñero was paroled in 1973, he joined Camillo’s acting company and started workshopping Short Eyes.
The play, which takes its name from prison slang for a child molester, tells the story of an incarcerated child rapist who may or may not be innocent, and the shifting allegiances that are part and parcel of life behind bars. During its 1974 premiere run at the Theater of the Riverside Church, the play was big upped by New York Times theater critic Mel Gussow, and was soon snapped up by theater impresario Joseph Papp.
And when it dropped on Broadway, Short Eyes went supernova: nominated for six Tony Awards, winner of the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award and an Obie Award for best play of the year, and spawning a companion book and ultimately a 1977 Paramount film adaptation. “This was really the first major play scripted by a Puerto Rican to be put on Broadway,” says former New York Post reporter Ed Newton, who was assigned to cover the fledgling playwright and the Nuyorican scene that he kicked off for New York Puerto Rican artists, poets and writers. “It was an exciting time. But probably a little too exciting.”
Shot with actual ex-cons on location at the Manhattan men’s detention center, or the Tombs, Short Eyes the film was gritty and real, with the occasional showy but non-Hollywood flourish — like R&B great Curtis Mayfield doing a genius song mid-movie — that makes you feel less as though you’re watching a movie and more like you’re living a movie.
When it hit, Piñero, who was back in jail (yes, for armed robbery again), was catapulted to a certain kind of national fame even greater than the theater-world adulation. A welcome break from infamy, we’re sure.
Which is to say that while it might have been easy to take the dude from the street, it wasn’t that easy to take the street from the dude. After a respectable run of more plays, TV and movies, Piñero died in 1988 from cirrhosis of the liver at the age of 41.
However, we’ve come not to bury Piñero, but to praise him.
Thoroughly and right here. With a scene that’s a bright spot in an otherwise fairly heavy 100 minutes.
Watch the entire film on Amazon Prime.