Rita Moreno and Sonia Manzano reflect on breaking boundaries through acting
Both have films at Sundance
Rita Moreno and Sonia Manzano have a lot in common.
The actresses, who took time for a Cinema Cafe panel chat, which started screening on Jan. 30 as part of the Sundance Film Festival, not only have ties to Puerto Rico. They are also pioneers in two of PBS’s groundbreaking educational programs, “The Electric Company” and “Sesame Street.”
Moreno, who older audiences know from roles in “Singin’ in the Rain” and “West Side Story,” played a number of educational sketch comedy characters in “The Electric Company,” while Manzano played Maria in “Sesame Street.”
The two also have separate documentary films screening during this year’s film festival.
Manzano is in Marilyn Agrelo’s “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street,” a selection in the Premieres category, and Moreno’s film is titled “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It,” by Mariem Pérez Riera, in the U.S. Documentary Competition category.
During their discussion with moderator Mandalit del Barco, an arts correspondent for NPR, both actresses talked about the lack of ethnic role models and how they got into their respective TV programs.
“There was no kid like me on the screen,” said Moreno, who was born in Puerto Rico before moving to New York when she was 5. “There were no mentors. So I picked my own. I picked Elizabeth Taylor, who was not only outrageously beautiful and near my age.”
Moreno selected Taylor because, in some ways, they resembled each other, she said.
“And I saw to it that I would look like her as much as I could,” she said.
While in her early 20s, Moreno moved to Hollywood on a contract with MGM, which she said was the studio of her dreams.
“They were the ones who made all those incredible musicals,” Moreno said. “It was the studio that had Gene Kelly. It was the studio that had Judy Garland. It had Margert O’Brien, Ann Miller, people I admired since I was a little bitty girl.”
The thrill faded a bit after she was regulated to playing the dark-eyed exotic girl.
“It was a deep disappointment,” she said. “I felt I could do a lot more than that, and I didn’t have a chance.”
The clouds parted a bit when Gene Kelly cast her to play redhead Zelda Zanders in “Singin’ in the Rain.”
“I was playing a ‘white’ part, and I was thrilled because I thought that was the end of those other parts where I had to talk with accents,” she said. “Not so.”
Manzano, who was born in the South Bronx and first visited Puerto Rico when she was 14, remembered her entry to “Sesame Street,” which came after she was cast in Carnegie Mellon University’s original production of “Godspell.”
“‘Sesame Street’ came out of the civil rights movement and it was the first time they were going to have people of color on television,” she said.
The role of Maria came about after “Sesame Street” had been on the air for a few weeks and audiences noticed African American actors portraying married couple Susan and Gordon.
“I remember seeing Susan and Gordon and I was stunned,” Manzano said.
Mexican American activists also paid attention, and they decided if there were role models for African Americans on “Sesame Street,” there should also be role models for Latinos, according to Manzano.
“I wish I could say I fought thousands of Puerto Rican actresses for the role, but the fact is there weren’t many of us,” she said. “There was one audition and one conversation with a producer and I landed the role. I got cast with Emilio Delgado, who was Mexican American.”
Moreno also enjoyed seeing Manzano on “Sesame Street.”
“When you came on I almost peed my pants,” Moreno said. “I said, ‘Oh, my God. There was another one like me.’”
“Sesame Street” and “The Electric Company” found a three-way balance of being educational, entertaining and political.
“We were banned in Mississippi because there was a (segment) of a Black kid sharing an ice cream with a white kid,” Manzano said. “They didn’t want to air the show, but we prevailed and it did get shown.”
In addition, Manzano was cast because producers wanted kids to see a “real person,” she said.
“They wanted me, so kids who lived in underserved neighborhoods could relate to me,” she said. “I remember how much comfort I found when I watched television trying to make sense of the world, and I had to remember kids look at me for some sort of comfort, some sort of order. So I ran with that.”
“The Electric Company” also wanted to normalize integration, Moreno said.
“We had a roster of the globe,” she said. “There was Morgan Freeman, and there was Luis Avalos, who was actually Cuban. So it was very political indeed.”
The educational sketch comedy in “The Electric Company,” as Manzano pointed out, allowed Moreno and Avalos to play different roles that weren’t relegated to being Latino.
“We played different characters all the time,” Moreno acknowledged. “We had a character whom we were, but we played lots of different things.”
The virtual 2021 Sundance Film Festival runs through Feb. 3. For information, visit sundance.org.
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