On Veterans Day, Pregones Theater premieres its latest mainstage production, THE HARLEM HELLFIGHTERS ON A LATIN BEAT. This musical piece tells the story of the sixteen black Puerto Rican musicians recruited by U.S. Army Lieutenant James Reese Europe, who traveled to Puerto Rico in 1917 to enlist local musicians in the all-black 369th Infantry during World War I.
These soldiers gave hell to the enemy on the frontlines, while playing in the streets with their regiment band repertoire. They were the Harlem Hellfighters – African American and Puerto Rican musicians who changed the course of jazz history. Some even say they may have won the war. This is their story. But as it happens in all official stories, a portion of it will be told on this stage full of ghosts for the first time.
The stellar ensemble includes the legendary black Puerto Rican vocalist and GRAMMY nominated artist, Danny Rivera who is considered the national voice of Puerto Rico. Joining Rivera on stage are newcomers, Otis Cotton as James Reese Europe, Antonio Vargas as Rafael Hernández and ensemble members Yarani Del Valle, Shadia Almasry and Omar Perez; percussionist, Anthony Carrillo and award-winning composer, Desmar Guevarra, Musical Director of Pregones Theater. The play was conceived and written by Pregones’ Artistic Director, Rosalba Rolón.
“I wanted to bring the story of these musicians to life and reintroduce them and their beautiful music to new audiences,” says Rolón. “It’s a powerful story about the communion between African Americans and Puerto Ricans who were segregated and fighting in World War I and in that marginalization they surpassed language barriers and created exquisite music.”
The action takes place on the haunted stage of a once-glamorous concert hall, where the nighttime custodian (played by Rivera) is fond of whipping musical ghosts into frenzy. With loving precision he lures them out of the folds of sheer curtains, from behind ornately papered walls, and through the decaying silver of mirrors. A motley of Puerto Rican and African American soldiers tumble on stage, trailing a marvelous ruckus of ragtime jazz, military bugle calls, and Latin rhythms. Among them are legends James Reese Europe and Rafael Hernández, two musical giants of the 20th Century.
“This piece of theater saves with dignity the many anonymous heroes of our past,” says vocalist Danny Rivera. “Hellfighters provokes us not just to discover a forgotten story, but to understand through music, a history that that is filled with jubilance, mysticism, survival, brotherhood, joy, courage, and ultimately, freedom.”
THE HARLEM HELLFIGHTERS ON A LATIN BEAT is an original playscript based on historical facts. Production conceived and directed by Rosalba Rolón with musical director Desmar Guevara. Designs by Harry Nadal and Lighting Designer, Esteban Lima.