Behind Sonnets for an Old Century: Playwright José Rivera
By A Noise Within
April 30, 2021
By Sarah Wong
Oscar-nominated playwright and screenwriter José Rivera is the writer behind our latest Noise Now offering, an audio production of Sonnets for an Old Century. Sonnets is comprised of 24 monologues, weaving a tapestry of poetic, magical meditations that explore yearning, connection, and community through a diverse lens.
Born in Puerto Rico, before moving to Long Island, José Rivera always knew he wanted to be a writer. In an interview with the Geffen Playhouse, Rivera says that he has written “several plays in high school, and one of them was produced. In college, I wrote a play a year, which I produced and directed.”
Rivera began his writing career in television, writing and editing for shows like Diff’rent Strokes and Family Matters. In 1991, Rivera even co-created his own television show, Eerie, Indiana, but he found himself more interested in working on plays.
His breakthrough in theater came in 1992, with the Obie award-winning production of Marisol. The absurdist and fantastical play features a heavenly war between the angels and God with the Puerto Rican protagonist, Marisol Perez, caught in the middle.
Since then, Rivera has continued to work both as a playwright and screenwriter, striving to include Latinx characters and unconventional stories. Rivera’s 2004 screenplay for The Motorcycle Diaries, based on Argentine Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara’s diary account of a motorcycle trip, earned Rivera a nomination for a BAFTA, Writer’s Guild Award, and an Academy Award.
Rivera has stated that much of his stylistic inspiration comes from his family. “I grew up with a mother who wanted to be a nun and we had pictures of angels all over the house. My grandparents told ghost stories. Seeing magic in the world just felt like how you perceive life.”
His other notable theatrical works include the Cloud Tectonics, References to Salvador Dalí Make Me Hot, and School of the Americas. Rivera’s works, particularly those in the realm of theatre, are known for placing surreal and magical happenings in realistic modern settings. Rivera often blurs the line between the symbolic and the literal, the ordinary and the fantastical.
“For me,” says Rivera, “‘magic’ is just another way to explore the metaphors for the psychological state of the characters.”
Despite the untethered, dreamlike machinations of his plays, Rivera says that he always draws from his personal experiences. His family, his friends, people he’s seen on the street.
“I decided I should write emotionally about things I think I know. A lot of things, especially in ‘Sonnets,’ are things I’ve been thinking about a long time.”
Love, loss, ancestry, and nostalgic memories all figure into the strange, yet poignant world of Sonnets for an Old Century. Rivera paints a picture that is both achingly real, and mysteriously fantastical. Listen to Noise Now’s sophisticated and theatrical audio adaptation of Sonnets for an Old Century now until May 9.