Temple of the Souls: West Side Story with Lessons for Today’s Lovers

07/27/2017 03:03 pm ET

Do you believe “Love conquers all”? Do you want war between races and religions to end? Then I really hope you saw the new play in limited performances off-Broadway July 19-23.

Temple of the Souls” is set at the time when the Spanish conquered the native Taínos of Puerto Rico in the 1500s, as the backdrop of a star-crossed love story reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story. The play moved me to my soul – as it will do to you. It won a prestigious competition to be one of 10 new musical productions chosen from over 200 competitors in the New York Musical Festival 2017.

Poster Credit: Lorca Peress.

When attending the theater, I love to be stimulated on many levels and this play delivers. Like me, you will undoubtedly be captivated by the murderous plots, enthralling festivals, and secret hideaways at the sacred El Yunque mountaintop in Puerto Rico.

Photo Credit: John Quilty.

I was absolutely enthralled by the two main universal themes: love and the clash of cultures. These themes stimulate my heart, mind and spirit!

Universal Love Theme

This new adaptation of the Romeo and Juliet-themed story features star-crossed lovers, a native Puerto-Rican Taíno youth and the daughter of a Spanish conquistador. What ends will the girl’s horrified father go to, to sabotage their forbidden love? This is something I could relate to in my own life...

Photo Credit: John Quilty.

Given the musical’s overarching love theme, it makes sense that my good friend, famous love expert and media advice psychologist Dr. Judy Kuriansky, is supporting the play so wholeheartedly. In her decades of giving advice to thousands on her popular call-in radio show “LovePhones” and in her many books, such as “The Complete Idiots Guide to Dating” and “The Complete Idiots Guide to A Healthy Relationship,” she’s championed that culturally diverse couples can make it work.

“Falling in love with someone from a different ethnic, racial, age, or socio-economic background is increasingly common today,” says Dr. Judy. “But it certainly doesn’t have to end in tragedy as depicted in the play. Couples today can bridge their cultural and ethnic gaps if they appreciate each other’s uniqueness, compromise, and close their ears to critics.”

The Universal Clash of Cultures Theme

The cultural clash in this musical reflects what has occurred throughout the ages, and still persists today, in the Middle East and Syria, and even in our U.S. government’s stand on immigration.

In the play, the indigenous Taíno people refuse to be continually victimized by their Spanish colonizers, and instead go to their temple at the top of the sacred El Yunque mountain and jump to their death. Hence the title, “Temple of the Souls.”

The choice of self-sacrifice over subjugation reminds me of the ancient story of Masada, the high plateau north of the Dead Sea, where a band of Jews climbed to escape the Romans in about 73 AD, only to find they were outnumbered by 9,000 enemy soldiers. The men, women and children committed suicide rather than succumb to being captured and enslaved.

The same theme captivated audiences in Shakespeare’s feuding families of the Capulets and the Montagues in “Romeo and Juliet” and its adaptation set in the mid-1950s of the warring New York City gangs of the white Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks in the wildly popular musical and movie, “West Side Story.”

I’ve attended many major events at the United Nations that my friend Dr. Judy produced, that have addressed the urgency to heal such cultural divides, like the “World Day of Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development Interfaith Harmony Week,” Mental Health and Well-being at the Heart of the Sustainable Development Goals and even the International Day of Happinessthat I participated in, and have written about in this column. It’s time in 2017, with the climate in Washington and around the world, to heal cultural divides.

Photo credit: HOLA.

Appropriately, the creators of Temple of the Souls represent a mix of culture. Sisters Anika Paris and Lorca Peress are half Jewish, half Puerto Rican. On their Polish side, members of their family lost their lives in the Holocaust, and on their Puerto Rican side, they were victims of the Taíno struggle.

Anika told me, "We are passionate about this project because it is relevant in today’s political climate and also because as a family, we have experienced discrimination in our history on both our Jewish and Puerto Rican sides.”

A particularly charming element of the production is that it is a family affair and rooted in the Velez-Mitchell family history.

The play was originally written as a poem by famous Puerto Rican poet, actress, and dancer Anita Velez-Mitchell. Sitting in the ancient caves hearing drips of stalactites, Anita felt they were tears of the Taínos.

Years later, the story was developed into a play by her granddaughters mentioned above. Lorca Peress, who evolved the “book” for the musical, is a noted director and founder of MultiStages (a theater company that develops new multicultural and multidisciplinary works), and Anika Paris, a songwriter with songs in feature films, TV and theater, has released three solo CDs and shared the stage with luminaries Stevie Wonder, John Mayer, and John Legend.

Successful husband-wife teams intrigue me, as does the fact that Anika’s husband, Dean Landon, orchestrator and co-composer on the amazingly dynamic, surprising score for the musical. No wonder, he composes music for Warner Bros and his music can be heard on HBO's Sex in the City, Desperate Housewives, Saturday Night Live, MTV, Ellen DeGeneres, TMZ, and The Bachelor and The Bachelorette.

Photo credits: Cultural Weekly, Anika Paris, Leanna Conley

Successful husband-wife teams intrigue me, as does the fact that Anika’s husband, Dean Landon, collaborated on the amazingly dynamic, surprising score for the musical. No wonder, he’s composed music for HBO’s Sex in the City, Desperate Housewives, Saturday Night Live, MTV, Ellen DeGeneres, TMZ, and The Bachelor and The Bachelorette.

The play is also born of friendship. Anita Velez Mitchell’s daughter Jane Velez-Mitchell is BFFs with Dr. Judy Kuriansky since 1982 when they were both reporters at WCBS-TV. Dr. Judy has known the family from Anita’s birthday parties over years. She saw the play years ago when it was first being developed, and fell so much in love with it that she’s supporting it as Executive Producer. Anything Dr. Judy does is a winner. I told her, “You go girl!” I’d invest in it myself if I hadn’t given away my Wall Street fortune to become a humanitarian in Haiti, Indonesia and around the world.

Photo credit: Donna Dennison.

Performances were July 19-23. See: www.nymf.org/festival/2017-events/temple-souls/. Press may contact Katie Rosin at Katie@Kampfirefilmspr.com or (917) 562-5670.

If you missed it, see it when it reappears! And be prepared to laugh and cry, to keep hearing the songs in your head, and to be motivated to stand up against prejudice and victimization, and to love one another.

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