A Harvard Square Story: Longtime Cambridge Resident Rosanna Yamagiwa Alfaro Brings Her Work's Focus To Home

Playwright Rosanna Yamagiwa Alfaro's career surged recently. "This year, at the age of 72, I became a Huntington Playwriting Fellow, received a Massachusetts Cultural Council Artist Fellowship, and was given a slot in the 2011—2012 Huntington Theatre Company season," Alfaro shares. "My son Pablo said, 'It sounds like the beginning of a brilliant career.'"

Alfaro, who tends toward dry modesty, offers her own explanation. "I'm convinced a large part of whether one gets on or not is luck," she says. "2011 is the Asian year of the Rabbit and I just happen to be a rabbit." Of course, Alfaro's career has never followed a traditional path for a field where playwrights often spend much of their twenties and thirties perfecting their stagecraft in obscurity. After degrees at Radcliffe and University of California at Berkeley, Alfaro was too busy writing and publishing short stories. (Her story "Little by Little" was published in The Boston Globe Magazine.) The turning point for Alfaro came in her late thirties when she wrote her first play, Behind Enemy Lines, a drama about Japanese-American internment camps.

Behind Enemy Lines was an angry political play," Alfaro says. "It followed the Toda family from the horse stalls in the assembly center to the tarpaper barracks in the camps and the segregation center." Among many productions across the country, the People's Theater, a new defunct small Boston company, produced the play in Cambridge in 1981. "I was enchanted when stage characters became flesh and blood," Alfaro says of her first production experiences. "I was utterly fascinated by the interaction of directors, actors, and audience. It was a case of love at first sight, and I never wrote another short story."

In Before I Leave You, as with many of her plays, Alfaro shows a subtle, wry sense of humor and a striking attention to telling detail, traits perhaps inherited from her background in short stories. Her works also reveal a wide-ranging intelligence; previous plays have covered everything from the love affairs of Pablo Picasso, to the inner life of famous Watergate figure Martha Mitchell, to a play in process about a robot golem. "My plays are usually character driven and rarely begin with a story or theme," she says. "Once I am halfway through a play, everything seems to be related to it: the bumper sticker on a car in front of us, the annoying comment of a friend, the overheard conversation of a mother and child on the bus — all of these have sparked a scene."

Although she has lived in Harvard Square for forty-five years, this play is her first to be set in her own neighborhood. "My plays have been set as afield as Paris, Amsterdam, Mexico City, Mount Olympus, and an imaginary dictatorship in Central America," Alfaro shares of her work's landscape. "With Before I Leave You, I finally decided to come home to roose in multicultural Cambridge where I've lived most of my life. My characters are recognizable Harvard Square types — accomplished, neurotic, and opinionated — but they also have unique and deeply felt problems, based as they are on people (including myself) I've known for a very long time."

Charles Haugland

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