The Combat Hippies highlight Puerto Rican history and struggles

Photo Courtesy of Matthew Wikfors

The Berrie Center invited Puerto Rican performance group The Combat Hippies to perform their provocative theater piece “Amal” on Nov. 16 in celebration of Puerto Rican Heritage Month and Veterans and Military Families Month. The show explores the search for purpose and identity through the ties between Puerto Rican history and the military. The show also explores the impact of war on both combatants and non-combatants as people of color.

Directed by theater artist Teo Castellanos, the show starred war veterans Anthony Torres, Hipólito Arriaga and Angel R. Rodriguez Sr. Torres and Arriaga were credited as writers as well. The performance involved multiple spoken word poetry pieces and vignettes that explored different emotions and experiences tied to military service and Puerto Rican history. 

The show featured live elements of drumming from Rodriguez, dancing, strobe lights and sounds of gunfire — all of which audiences were warned about before purchasing their ticket. The whole show took place in a circle laid out on the stage. Movement around the space was counterclockwise.

Before the show began, a recording warned the audience about the contents of the show in case they experience post-traumatic stress disorder.

“This show may shock, offend or enlighten you,” it said, encouraging people to pay attention.

One especially impactful scene explored a little-known piece of Puerto Rican History. The scene began with Torres and Arriaga talking about World War I. 20,000 Puerto Ricans were enlisted in military service once Woodrow Wilson signed a compulsory military service act. Torres and Arriaga said the U.S. made them citizens so they could send them off to fight their battles. 

Other powerful scenes included a spoken word piece about various prisoners being held in Abu Ghraib, conflicted feelings on seeing an enemy who tried to kill you as human, the devastation Hurricane Maria left behind and the American expectation for people of color to hide their culture.

“I thought it was a really powerful show, what they had to share with us,” said Rebecca Gathercole, a Ramapo student staff member of the Berrie Center. “It was really creative and beautiful and the fact they went through so much pain and created from it was great.”

Lisa Campbell, director of the Berrie Center, held a post-show discussion with Castellanos and the performers. The discussion included questions about how the company came to be, how they determined what content the show should include, PTSD and how to better understand veterans.

Castellanos explained that The Combat Hippies started out from a series of spoken word poetry and performance workshops with veterans from Afghanistan. They held performances of the pieces once the workshops were over, and people wanted more.

“People said, ‘You should continue, you should continue.’ So we did,” Castellanos said.

When talking about how he and the writers decided what content to include in the show, he explained that The Combat Hippies are a devised theater group. That means that scenes are written and included through a series of contributions from different people.

“Once we became a company, we had our culture, something we could really dig into,” Castellanos said.

“One thing is there are more voices and more experiences than on news, on movies and in books that veterans deal with,” Torres said. “PTSD is an invisible wound” and Torres wants to “shed light on the power of people coming together and storytelling.” Using his experiences as a mental health tech, some of his lines during the show reflected how war affects mental health.

“We are the voices of the veterans that suffer and don’t get help,” Rodriguez added.

Arriaga explained how his perspective was influenced by injuring other people of color during his enlistment.

“I was sent overseas to fight people that look like me and I still struggle with that,” he said. He added that there is not a “one size fits all approach” reason for why people join the military. That idea was explored throughout the performance.

Castellanos commented on some of the cultural nuances of the performance. The choice to include drumming as a major part of Rodriguez’s character, for example, was both a big part of who he is and an ancestral link. Castellanos said the drum was the center of the community and held people together. He also said the show was designed for a circular stage to emphasize how the round storytelling of the Puerto Rican community brings a circle of connections. That was the reason why they included a tape circle on stage for their performance. The counterclockwise movements were a reference to Hurricane Maria since hurricane air flows counterclockwise.

Torres emphasized that veterans are normal people too, but there’s a lot to learn from them. He said that they should be treated just like you would treat any other person.

“Veterans get heroized, put on a pedestal or the extreme opposite of ‘poor you, pity the poor soul’ and there’s more than that.”