BY BONNIE ROSENSTOCK | Three Kings Day is celebrated on Jan. 6 throughout the Spanish-speaking world to mark the birth of Jesus and the gifts brought by the Magi, and especially so in the Loisaida community. In 2000, Angie Hernandez, with the support and encouragement of Carlos “Chino” Garcia and CHARAS, presented her first production of “The Gifts of the Magi.” The play has since evolved from a piece presented at the Henry Street Playhouse, “peace/La Paz,” co-written with Nuyorican poet Tato Laviera in the late ’80s, to a more than one-hour spectacular, always mindful of the power of love and gift-giving to local children.
However, this past Jan. 6, writer-director Hernandez had to present a pared-down, 15-minute version, rebranded as “The Greatest Gifts” at the Loisaida Center, 710 E. Ninth St. — in three performances to accommodate the less-spacious venue — instead of at St. Mark’s Church on 10th Street and Second Avenue. Due to an unfortunate set of circumstances (beyond the ken of this article), there was no room at the inn, er, church, to continue their decades-long partnership — and funding.
On a shoestring budget, David “Daso” Soto and Hernandez, his mother, decided that the show must go on no matter what in order to preserve this precious legacy. They took several of the acts and created one shorter act, which lost none of its power, humor and religious message. They chose the scene at King Herod’s castle, featuring Herod (Daso), the Three Kings (Marc Reign as Balthazar, David Hernandez as Gaspar and Kiki Cotto as Melchor), the Star (dancer Chiquita Brujita), Narrator (Maraluna Mico) and young Jesus (6-year-old Christian Navarro). Three musicians that Daso frequently works with — Angel Acevedo, on bass; Yuto Kanazawa, on guitar; and Keith Rosello, on conga — plus four amazing singers from Our Chorus NYC, along with its director Carmen Roman, rounded out the flawless ensemble.
The actors worked pro bono, although Loisaida Center did give a small honorarium to Daso’s musicians.
“The actors understood that and hence the reason for doing it shorter with a smaller cast,” he said. “But regardless of the circumstances, it was important for us to do it, whether smaller, a one-acter or just a reading. This should still happen because it’s part of our tradition with my mom, who founded Grupo Cemi in 1975 to promote Boricua culture and engage youth through Puerto Rican Afro musical roots called bomba y plena.”
Hernandez acknowledged that it was even more work to keep the emotion, breaking it down, going over it, what to keep to still have the focus.
“Everything is important in the play,” she said, “but it was mostly the same dialogue, with cutting and pasting.
“It’s not just a theater piece,” she added, “but also my mission in life. At the same time, it was a great victory to be able to go beyond with so much less.
“I didn’t know I was going to have another opportunity to do the play again,” Hernandez, who is battling cancer, told me. She returned to New York from Puerto Rico in 2017 because of Hurricane Maria, bringing her glorious costumes she created with her. “A lot of doors started to open. Chino and I already talked about doing the play at St. Mark’s. Now other people want to take the credit, but that’s their problem. (This year, St. Mark’s put on their own version.)
In a further setback, she couldn’t attend the performances because she had contracted COVID, but she watched the video of it later.
“I want to look at this as, ‘Let’s move forward,’” she said. “David, my son, is going to take over. This is my last one. I have already passed it on to him. The play will continue.”