Celebrating two Latino luminaries from Philly on NYC stage

 Lauren Velez and Tony Plana in

Lauren Velez and Tony Plana in "The Happiest Song Plays Last." (Image courtesy of Quiara Alegría Hudes)

This weekend, two shining stars from Philadelphia’s Latino community will be honored.

One is a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, while the other is dead. Their lives intersect in a Philadelphia story premiering on the New York stage.

Quiara Alegria Hudes’ newest play, “The Happiest Song Plays Last,” is based on Philadelphia activist, musician, and teacher Joaquin Rivera.

“Around the age that I was a watching ‘Sesame Street,’ they had that song, ‘Who are the People in Your Neighborhood?’ ” Hudes recalled. “Well, he was a person in my neighborhood. He was at the church where we would go for service — for a funeral, for weddings.

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“He came and played at my grandmother’s grave on Mother’s Day, and sang lots of traditional songs, and almost made it a party,” she said.

Rivera was not well-known outside of Puerto Rican circles, until his death in 2009. Complaining of chest pain, he went into a hospital in the Frankford neighborhood and died while sitting in the waiting room. No one noticed his death until someone tried to steal his watch.

The story of his death became a rallying cry for health care reform.

The play remembers him as a troubadour of Puerto Rican culture and a champion of the unsung.

Nilda Ruiz is another whose life was touched by Rivera. Without his encouragement, she said, she never would have gone to college. Ruiz now heads the nonprofit Asociacion Puertorriquenos en Marcha, overseeing a $34 million budget.

This weekend, Ruiz is coordinating a caravan of more than 100 people going to New York to see the play together. It’s playing at the Second Stage Theatre in New York through March 23.

“The outpouring that we’re seeing is because people can relate to someone that, you know, was like a little hillbilly in American terms,” she said. “But he was still proud, and made a lot of people proud. It’s always nice to look up to somebody who looks like you, acts like you, and tells you, it’s OK. It’s all right. You fit in.”

“The Happiest Song Plays Last” is the final play of Hudes’ Philadelphia-based trilogy.

The second installment, “Water by the Spoonful,” won a Pulitzer Prize. It’s playing at the Arden Theatre through Sunday.

Hudes is on the board of Philadelphia Young Playwrights, which produced her first play in the tenth grade. She now lives in New York with her husband and children.

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