Miami's New Theatre celebrates its 20th anniversary in 2006, and I was honored to participate in an unforgettable fundraising project. But first, a little background...

Miami Stories, a benefit for the award-winning New Theatre, is the South Florida incarnation of an idea from the Victory Gardens Theater in Chicago, which showcases short plays written by local celebrities. On March 24, 2006, Miami Stories 2006 brought together stories by Hispanic TV/radio celebrity Lili Estefan, artist Romero Britto, and publicist/arts activist Charlie Cinnamon. Set against the backdrop of the Dale Chihuly glass sculpture-graced Fairchild Tropical Gardens, Miami Stories 2006 began with cocktails, dinner, and a silent auction before the premiere of the three short plays (special thanks to Miami Herald Theater Critic Christine Dolen for this background info).

Two months earlier, I was approached by a New Theatre board member – interior designer Bea Pila – who asked me to collaborate with Lili Estefan on her installment. I'd never met Lili, so Bea arranged a meeting at the Univisión network, the location of Lili's hit show, El Gordo y la Flaca. Waitaminute. Let's set the scene...

I run into Lily in the halls of the studio as she literally walks offstage. I'm immediately smitten by her warm and funny personality. Thing is, I have no idea what this meeting's about, other than we're supposed to come up with something for this fundraiser in a couple of months. We sit down in her office and I say, "well, I've heard a little bit about the project, please tell me more. I'm very interested in working with you." After a (very) pregnant pause, she responds, "I thought you were going to tell me about it!" So I immediately start to improvise (i.e. bullshit) and begin asking questions:

Me: "Well, tell me about a crazy time in your life."
Lili: "Every day is crazy!"
Me: "What about your weirdest day?"
Lili: "Which one?"

Fortunately, as if on cue, Bea walks in and they begin making small talk. I listen carefully, hoping to glean more info on the project from their banter. I get lucky. I also hear that Lili recently picked up her wedding pictures, so I begin to offer some small talk of my own.

Me: "Congratulations, you just got married?"
Lili: "Oh, no, we were married 13 years ago."
Me: "And you only recently picked up your wedding pictures??!!"
Lili: "Yeah, and our wedding was the day before Hurricane Andrew, the same day I got my first big break in radio."

And so the idea was born. The play would be about Lili's wedding. There's more to the play, but that's all I'll reveal for now. Lili and I met one more time to clarify and correct some details in the story, and I sent the final draft to Ricky J. Martinez, New Theatre's associate artistic director. For some reason, I wasn't invited to rehearsals and did not receive requests for changes or alternative ideas. I figured they either liked it, or hated it and re-wrote it. Lili was in the midst of ratings sweeps, so I didn't hear from her, either. And, it just so happens, I'd never written a play (Bea kept that little detail out of our meeting – sister-in-laws are the best!). Talk about an all-around leap of faith!

I showed up at the fundraiser absolutely mortified – not because I thought the incredibly talented folks at New Theatre wouldn't do a fine job or that I didn't do my best in telling Lili's story, but that I had absolutely nothing to say to Lili (or anyone else for that matter) if I was asked how it finally turned out. We would all find out together! This had the makings for another Arroz Con Mango – the final title of the play – Cuban slang for "something completely out of the ordinary!"

Just before the dinner, Cecilia Torres – the actor playing Lili in Mango – approached me to introduce herself. She is a short, attractive brunette who nonetheless looks nothing like Lili, and immediately told me so in a very cheerful, playful way. However, there was something about her personality that seemed very, very right for Mango. E.L. Losada – who plays Lili's husband, Lorenzo – also came up and echoed Cecilia's comment that "it's going to be real fun." Ricky dropped by our conversation and apologized for not inviting me to the rehearsals (which were incredibly rushed), but stressed that "it's going to be great!"

It was unbelievable. Unbelievable! When the first few words came out of Cecilia's mouth, Lili and I looked at each other briefly and knew: Mango was going to be amazing!

To give you an idea of the blueprint New Theatre had to work with, here is the play.

Cecilia, E.L., and Rudy Mungaray were sheer perfection. Every single word, phrase, pause, and aside were delivered verbatim and with an impeccable sense of timing. I'm so overwhelmed that the text was approached with such respect. Ricky's brilliant direction emphasized the irreverent structure and brought the performance out to the audience members, who were in stitches throughout the duration of the play.

Lili was laughing so hard, I could see tears flowing. Lorenzo wanted to crawl under the table (but in a good way). There is a moment in the play where the character of Lili asks Lorenzo who he's talking to on the phone on their wedding night. Lili (the real Lili) had explained to me that Lorenzo spoke with his mother that night about the oncoming Hurricane Andrew, but when that little tidbit wound up in the play, it seemed funnier to have Lorenzo just respond, "Mom." It was the biggest laugh of the night, and bless Cecilia and E.L. for delivering a grace note with such timing and finesse, it was uncanny. The standing ovation was well-deserved.

Thank you Lili, Bea, and everyone at New Theatre – especially artistic director Rafael de Acha – for the opportunity to contribute artistically to this benefit. It was an experience I'll never forget!


Photos of the event were taken by Brett Hufziger of VIP Guide Miami. Photos courtesy of Brett and New Theatre (click on the thumbnail for a bigger pic):

A group photo (L-R): Bea Pila, me, the real "Omar," Rudy as "Omar," Cecilia as "Lili," the real "Lili," the real "Lorenzo," E.L. as "Lorenzo," Paula Levine from the New Theatre board, director Ricky J. Martinez.

The Arroz Con Mango trio (L-R): Rudy, Cecilia, and E.L.

Cecilia starts Arroz Con Mango amidst the audience.

Cecilia at the altar (climbs on top of a table): "Where's Lorenzo?"

Cecilia & E.L.: "Is that Omar?"

"Big smile – uh, not that big!"

Rudy: "We need you to sign that contract now!"

Cecilia: "Who are you talking to?" E.L.: "Mom."

Cecilia: "Coño, can they let know?"

E.L.: "The hurricane is coming today!"

Cecilia: "Let's do something fun – let's open our presents."

The applause before the standing ovation.

© F.E.M.