The Nuyorican celebrates poets aloud


By Svieta Reznik

Wanting to give a platform to underrepresented artists, writer Miguel Algarin co-founded the Nuyorican Poets Café in the living room of his East Village apartment in 1973. On May 3, the Nuyorican, the name of which refers to Puerto Ricans living in New York, will celebrate 35 years of poetry, theater, music, film, and visual arts innovation with a lineup of performers who launched their careers at the venerable institution.

“Nuyorican is where I cut my teeth and came into my own as an artist,” says poet/singer/actor and co-host Flaco Navaja, who started participating in the poetry slams as a teenager more than a decade ago. Inspired by the liberty of expression and fusion of artistic forms that merged hip-hop, poetry, and jazz, Navaja “felt constricted with traditional poetry. [Here], I could just tell stories about people and the neighborhood. It gave me freedom that I didn’t feel like I had before.” Navaja, who went on to host the Nuyorican’s weekly open mic for six years, performs with Puerto Rican band Papo Torrez and Yuerbabuena and has toured internationally with Russell Simmons’ Tony-winning Def Poetry Jam. Navaja attributes this success to the opportunity he got early on to perform and develop a personal style that combines beat-boxing, singing, and spoken word.

Navaja’s story is exactly what Algarin envisioned. The entrance of the Nuyorican, located at 236 East 3rd Street since 1980, is framed by a mural of poet/playwright and Puerto Rican nationalist Pedro Pietri. Located in the heart of Loisada—a section of Alphabet City that has had a large Puerto Rican population since the late 1960s—the Nuyorican has sparked other spoken word venues, from The Bowery Poetry Club to Def Poetry on HBO.

Rome Neal, director of the theater program, came to the performance space 25 years ago as an actor in “Nuyorican Nights,” a play written by Nuyorican co-founder and actor/playwright Miguel Piñero. “The Nuyorican was an artistic, creative, rhythmic movement that was intellectual and hard core at the same time,” says Neal. “The shows reflected the edge of the neighborhood. Sometimes performers would run out of here in tears because the audience was so tough on them,” Neal remembers as he shows off some of the more than 30 Audelco awards the theater program has won.

Looking to the future, newly appointed executive director Daniel Gallant is overseeing ambitious plans to expand and go digital. Gallant is pursuing funding to renovate the building’s upper floors to create additional classroom and performance space and to create a multimedia lab to videotape shows. “It will allow us to serve more students and spectators,” explains Gallant, who expects the expansion to be a two-year project. The Nuyorican owns its building and has been able to survive on admission ($7-20 for most shows) and bar revenue.

In June, the Nuyorican is launching an online multimedia archive resource called “Verbs on Asphalt” that will explore the history of the poetry slam. “We’re lucky enough to have name recognition all around the world. We want to use multimedia resources to make content available online to promote the work of rising artists,” says Gallant. Another key project this year is the re-launch of the Nuyorican press imprint with the first book due out at the end of June.

The Nuyorican is also expanding its programming to include more family-friendly events on weekend afternoons and incorporating Monday night theater. Gallant wants to build a membership program that will give members access to master classes with artists and introduce other disciplines like dance. Increasing educational programs to bring in school groups on weekday afternoons is also in the works.

According to Neal the most popular events continue to be the hallmark Friday night poetry slams where performers sign up for open mic and everyone gets his chance on stage. Other programs are also bringing in a new audience. The Moth, held the second Tuesday of each month, invites storytellers to compete with a tale that speaks to the evening’s theme. The upcoming May 13 topic is “Culture Shock.” Theater, jazz nights, and concerts round out the schedule.

The 35-year celebration Saturday, May 3 will include artists across genres and will be held at Town Hall to accommodate a turnout expected to exceed Nuyorican’s 120-person capacity. “The audience is more international now. It’s wonderful to share with the world the energy we created that started with Miguel in his living room,” says Neal. Performers will include the Tony-nominated playwright of “Bring Da’Noise, Bring Da’Funk,” poet Reg E Gaines, Willie Perdomo, and hip-hop artist La Bruja.

For tickets and full lineup, the-townhall-nyc.org, 212-307-4100. For programming details at the Nuyorican, visit nuyorican.org.