César Cancino, about to open Life Without Makeup, Berkeley Rep’s world premiere starring Rita Moreno, is in a tug of war.
An amalgamation of his Latino birthright and his classical music training at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, the East Bay pianist and musical director alternately embraces and rejects definition.
“Just because you are Latino doesn’t mean that you play salsa. I know a hell of a lot more about Bach and Mozart than I do about Cuban music,” he says bluntly.
The next moment, he’s chastising his Latino siblings for neglecting their heritage.
“All of my nieces and nephews born in this country, none of them speak Spanish. They robbed them of a language and a culture!” he exclaims.
His hero is Claudio Arrau, a profoundly talented pianist who was born in Chile and trained in Germany, and is described by Cancino as having complete command and no technical limitations at the keyboard.
“He’s Hispanic, but there comes a point where people get so far beyond their culture that you forget their culture,” Cancino says.
Moreno, close to 70 and still wowing audiences with her genre-defying range as a performer, is a Latina artist who achieved perfect balance, according to Cancino.
“Rita was playing the ethnic utility role: Polynesian, Mexican, anything non-white went to her. It’s really something when you are able to cross that barrier. She was just so bloody talented—such a good actress—that she was able to get past it,” he says.
Joan Baez, with whom Cancino toured with for years, had an impact on his self-perception in ways that transcend ethnicity.
“It was my first time working in ‘the big time’,” he recalls. “She was in desperate need of a rehearsal pianist—getting ready for the Boston Pops. They brought in an orchestral score, and I sat down and played it.”
Two weeks later, Cancino got the call and found himself in Atlanta, in front of 6,000 people.
“It was just Joan, singing, her guitar, and me on the piano,” he laughs, remembering the fear, but also the political and cultural lessons he learned from Baez.
“I learned about the civil rights movement. I was oblivious, because I lived in the world of music,” Cancino admits.
His musical safe haven is a blend of classical, show, jazz and circus experience. For five years, he was the musical director at Teatro Zinzanni, a cabaret-style dinner theater in San Francisco.
His love of the piano is singular and unwavering.
“I have no interest in other instruments. I like the idea of both of my hands having 88 keys to play. It’s power,” he says.
Working with Moreno has been an education in flexibility.
“I don’t think the name ‘quadralogue’ exists, but it’s really four people speaking: Rita, the director, the choreographer and me,” he says.
Cancino stresses that the production is a play with music, not a musical. His job is to make the musical modulations seem natural, synergistic with Moreno's story.
The story (to paraphrase Moreno’s words in a video on the Berkeley Rep website) outlines her life as an immigrant in an unfriendly country. It is a tale both familiar and unfamiliar to Cancino.
“I’m not perceived as Latino,” he says. “If I wore a cowboy hat and picked vegetables while speaking in broken English, I firmly believe I would receive some prejudice. But because I don’t look like that and have no accent, they don’t do that.”
That doesn’t mean he hasn’t suffered; even a man he considers a friend once told him, ‘You know, you’re pretty classy, for being Mexican.’
Instead of choosing anger, Cancino hopes to send a message.
“I would like to let Latinos know that if they truly apply themselves and learn the language well, they can go very far,” he says. “They should take their education seriously and not run around on the streets. It’s the only way they will gain a better life.”
While proud of his roots, Cancino resists stereotyping.
“Embrace your culture,” he says, “but move beyond that. Don’t let it get in the way; don’t let it limit you."
Rita Moreno: Life Without Makeup opens Friday, Sept. 2, and runs through Oct. 30 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $14.50-$38 per person; you may buy tickets online here. The play was written by Tony Taccone, who developed it in conjunction with Moreno. It is staged and directed by David Galligan and choreographed by Lee Martino.