Restless, curious, sagacious, industrious, seasoned observer, lover of words, passionate about art and admirer of women. All of that is contained within the person called John Gonzalez Bonilla. The actor, playwright, director and theater producer proclaims that in 50 years he has brought 101 productions to the island stages and, because it is true and he can prove it, he says it without a hint of humility.
Health problems, a serious accident suffered a year and a half ago, the pandemic and the closed theaters have forced him to slow down, something that he admits he cannot stand.
The pause, however, lit the way for him to edit a second volume of his plays, which he has suggestively entitled “I stay with women”.
The book, prefaced by Myrna Casas and with a test Dean Zayas As a final touch, it includes 14 scripts by González Bonilla, each one preceded by information related to the staging, such as the premiere date and the theater where it debuted, cast, technical sheet, posters and promotional photos, among others.
It also has a chronology of the premieres of his pieces, from the first performance of his first play “Twelve Black Walls”, in 1973, to “The Wedding of Jacobo and Gustavo” in 2016.
Let’s start at the beginning: the title, “I stay with women.”
“My first source of inspiration is women. A woman gave birth to me. She brought me into the world with pain and she sacrificed herself for me. It’s been 30 years since she died. Arcadia Bonilla. I adored her. She is my greatest heroine, and she is scattered throughout all my works, her thoughts and her feelings are reflected in the women of my plays, and because, although in the beginning it was performed by men, the theater is written practically for women. Men are very short. They have few conversations. However, with a woman you can have great conversations, intimate conversations, and conversations of heights. History is full of passionate, immense women: Jacqueline Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe, Maria Callas…” expresses González Bonilla with accurate emphasis.
“Women are more terrible than us, men and in my works they are the axis and men are only there to provoke them so that the rampage arrives, so that they explode and unload their fury and their passion”.
As a director, he does not hesitate to say that he prefers to work with actresses, which is why on more than one occasion he has been inspired by one of them to write a comedy or a drama, and has even played tricks on them with his creativity.
“I have a play by a group of female characters, ‘The poison is served at 8:00 p.m.’ Each of these characters is inspired by an actress and what I did was assign each one of them an opposite character, until as the rehearsals of the piece progressed they discovered which of the companions they were interpreting”, she laughs.
“Women bear the tragedy. Men have been taught not to cry, not to express. That’s why in theater from the classics you have those great characters like ‘La matchmaker’, ‘Medea’, the women in ‘Fuenteovejuna’, the women of Garcia Lorca’s Theatre”.
Parallel to the importance of the female figure in his dramaturgy, García Bonilla highlights another pillar at the time of creation, just as fertile for unleashing creativity: reality itself.
“My works are full of real characters whose names I change so as not to lack privacy or have problems. There is nothing to invent, everything is a matter of observing and talking. I talk with wanderers. It has always been easy for me to get people to tell me about their lives. I don’t know why, it’s something natural. My characters are on the street, I don’t make them up. And the most important thing: my theater is for the people, so that everyone understands it and can identify with what is happening and with what is said”.
a sun of women
The cover of the book “I stay with women” could not be more full of symbolism. On a black background appears the Taíno Sun of Jayuya. In its center is the face of Juan González Bonilla and inside its six rays that resemble petals are also the faces of six glorified actresses of the Puerto Rican theater: Lucy Boscana, Alba Nydia Díaz, Ofelia D’Acosta, Marylin Pupo, Sully Díaz and Gladys Rodriguez. The black background alludes to “Twelve Black Walls”. The Taíno sun is the logo of Candilejas, the theatrical production company with which González Bonilla and his inseparable Joseph Amato have materialized each of his works.
What can you tell me about these actresses who surround you on the cover?
“Alba Nydia is the best at crying on stage. She cries on ‘cue’. She can be as calm as possible and when it’s her turn to cry, those tears start to flow from her eyes as long as it takes, and in acting that’s a gift”.
“Ofelia did magic on stage. She had a unique sensibility to extract the essence of the characters from her.”
“Sully is dedication and passion. She is committed to her work, and the people adore her”.
“Gladys is discipline incarnate. She is the artist with the level of professionalism that you would like to have in all your works. She had the ability to say the lines exactly how I thought they should be said when I wrote them.”
“La Pupo makes herself loved a lot. She is a worker. She doesn’t lose concentration. She comes into character and you can drop the world around her and carry on as if nothing happened”.
“And Lucy is the pinnacle. That is why she is in the highest part of the sun. She was essential in the trajectory of Candilejas. She, along with Madeline Willemsen, Myrna Vázquez, Ester Sandoval… are the greatest actresses who have passed through the Puerto Rican theater. Lucy was a fajona. She came to rehearsals and that was ‘let’s pass lyrics, let’s pass lyrics’, she wasted no time. They are one of those perfect actresses to work with”, she asserts with emotion and why not, nostalgia.
From actor to playwright
González Bonilla began acting at the age of 14, under the direction and tutelage of the legendary Victoria Espinosa. His academic preparation was in acting, but the more he studied the art of scenic interpretation with professors like Myrna Casas and Maricusa Ornés, at the University of Puerto Rico the more he understood that it was another role within the theater that he wanted to interpret.
“The analysis of those characters that we debated with our teachers, were drama classes, I perceived it that way,” he says.
That is how, at the age of 31, he premiered his first work, “Twelve Black Walls”, with resounding success and much controversy.
“’Twelve Black Walls’ was the first play in Puerto Rican theater in which two women said ‘I love you’ and kissed. The piece takes place inside a gay bar where they go to express their love. It was premiered by Ester Sandoval and Myrna Vázquez. Then there were two reruns, in which Ester Sandoval did it with Alba Nydia Díaz and the last one, in which Alba Nydia did it with Lydia Echevarría”.
Despite the critical and public success obtained, Juan González Bonilla wanted to study dramaturgy formally, so he enrolled in a seminar with Luis Rafael Sánchez.
“I remember that when I entered the room, Wico, with such a special way of being, asked me: ‘And why are you here, if you are the author of ‘Twelve Black Walls’? And I replied ‘I came because I want to learn from you’. I knew Wico since 1956 but I treated him like the teacher he is. An extremely brilliant man. With him I learned to cut any speech and that every word that is said on stage has to do with the work”.
The last work that Producciones Candilejas premiered was “La boda de Jacobo y Gustavo” in 2016.
“This work was born from a reader’s letter that I saw in a newspaper, in which a desperate young man recounted how his father had kicked him out of the house for being homosexual. In fact, I integrated the letter into the text of the piece. It’s a family drama. All my works have to do with the home. Home is what defines how you are going to be in the future, ”he says.
As an illusionist of the word and the stage, Juan González Bonilla keeps a deck up his sleeve. He reveals that he has an unpublished work and that he hopes to release it.
“There have been 101 productions in 50 years… in Puerto Rico. I think that has been enough work. We never skimp on productions, scenery, costumes. We knew how to do works with two-story sets, with costumes and luxury furniture. We spent thousands of dollars on the music for the pieces. Joseph and I spent hours and hours on every detail”, she recalls with pride and satisfaction, while in her voice the desire to do even more is evident.