Miguel Pinero: prisoner, playwright

Today we welcome a guest post from Lee Bernstein, author of America Is the Prison: Arts and Politics in Prison in the 1970s (forthcoming June 2010). In his book, Bernstein explores the forces that sparked a dramatic “prison art renaissance” in the 1970s, when incarcerated people produced powerful works of writing, performance, and visual art. One of the important figures in Bernstein’s analysis is Miguel Piñero, whom Bernstein introduces to us here on the occasion of his birthday.–ellen

Saturday would have been Miguel Piñero’s sixty-third birthday. Born in Puerto Rico in 1946, by the end of 1950 Piñero’s family lived on New York’s Lower East Side. His teen years brought a stretch in Otisville State Training School for Boys, now an adult prison north of New York City. In 1964, Piñero turned eighteen, entered Riker’s Island, and became addicted to heroin. He died of cirrhosis of the liver, most likely related to AIDS, in 1988 at age forty-one.

In 1971, Piñero was sent to Sing Sing on an armed robbery charge. He told one interviewer that he started writing his award-winning play Short Eyes “for the hell of it” during this stretch in Sing Sing. While there, he met Marvin Felix Camillo, another man who died too young. Camillo was not a convict: he was hired to teach drama in the prison. In addition to appearing in the Lincoln Center production of South Pacific in 1967, Camillo participated in such community theater groups as Teatro de la Calle and Theatre du Jour in Newark. This connection was a crucial gateway for Piñero. The community theater movement helped nurture his talents and provided a post-release gateway to commercial theater. After his release, Piñero became director of Third World Projects for the Theater of the Riverside Church. Short Eyes was first produced at Riverside by The Family, a theatre group that Camillo led, before moving to the relatively new Public Theater in Greenwich Village and then to Lincoln Center, where it won Piñero an Obie Award for best off-Broadway play and Camillo one for best director.

This success brought Piñero to television and film, first in the cinematic version of Short Eyes (1977), then as a strip club owner in the cult film Times Square (1980) and ultimately as a drug dealer in Fort Apache, the Bronx (1981).  He would become a character actor and “street dialog” script specialist for some of the signature programs of my teen years: Kojak, Baretta, Miami Vice, and the occasional a Saturday night made-for-TV movie. This was escapist fare for a bookish kid like me, but when I was teaching at San José State I discovered a very different Piñero at the university’s Chicano collection, which included Bodega Sold Dreams and a well-worn copy of  The Sun Always Shines for the Cool.  His lyrical voice and unexpected warmth evoked Whitman and Hughes while at the same time being all his own.  I kept Bodega Sold Dreams on my desk for two years, returning it only when I moved east.  A copy of his “Lower East Side Poem” still hangs above me today.

Initially hailed as the “most dizzying ride of the season,” Short Eyes was the most visible and widely celebrated product of a broad prison theater movement during the late 1960s and 1970s. From the early years of actors and producers with little training or experience working with inmates to full-fledged social agencies providing therapeutic and job-training services for correctional facilities, theater programs like the one that brought together Piñero and Camillo represented the hope that dramatic training provided a route to individual improvement, if not personal redemption. Piñero’s life represents both a confirmation and refutation of this premise: if his life became a Hollywood movie (really: in 2001, director Leon Ichaso – who had worked with Piñero on Miami Vice – released Piñero, a biopic starring Benjamin Bratt and distributed by Miramax), the reality was much more complex: Piñero was arraigned on charges of heroin possession and grand larceny at New York City’s Tombs prison while Robert Young filmed scenes of Short Eyes on location elsewhere in the complex. He would appear as Go-Go in the film, but miss the opening while in prison yet another time.

Throughout much of his life, Piñero continued to live in and out of what he described as a “concrete tomb” created by “Rockefeller’s ghettocide,” but he also celebrated the “fancy cars & pimps’ bars & juke saloons & greasy spoons” that “make my spirits fly,” requesting in that poem over my desk that his admirers and friends “take my ashes and scatter them thru out the Lower East Side.”

Lee Bernstein
State University of New York at New Paltz