Two Musicals Trace The Life of Roberto Clemente

Sep 22, 2014

Two musicals are currently exploring the life of Pittsburgh Pirates legend Roberto Clemente.
Credit The Associated Press

Roberto Clemente died on Dec. 31, 1972, but you’d never know it from the hundreds of people who show up to Pirates games wearing jerseys with his name and number — 21 — printed on them. 

Now two musicals will trace the life of "The Great One" from his childhood in Puerto Rico to his career with the Pittsburgh Pirates from the mid-50’s to his untimely death at age 38.

Composer Alki Steriopoulous to spend nearly a decade writing a musical about Clemente.

It's called "21."

Steriopoulous grew up on Pittsburgh's North Side in the '50s and '60s. The city wasn’t legally segregated, but racial tensions were high. In his early days with the Pirates, Clemente, he said, received hostility from both whites and blacks.

"Black people at the time were upset with him because he was coming from a place where race didn’t matter, mixed couples had been going on for a long time, they were all Puerto Rican, there was no black and white, and he came here where we are all American," Steriopoulous said. "But the black and white divide was huge, and Jim Crow was still very much in effect. Jackie Robinson had just come up a few years prior."

Clemente’s English wasn’t perfect, and he was unrelenting in his beliefs.

"And so as such he was branded a troublemaker, arrogant, and people hated him, they would say who the heck is this uppity person coming here thinking he's going to change everything and just telling us what to do," Steriopoulous said. 

But in the time Clemente played with the Pirates, laws changed, as did racial attitudes. 

"What happened is slowly over the course of his life, people who were his greatest enemies came to be his biggest fans because they realized, his integrity was such and his honesty and his refusal to suffer any fools or bad things, his refusal to take it, we all started to look at ourselves differently," Steriopoulous said.

He said the historical arc of Clemente’s career against the backdrop of America’s civil rights era set up a perfect narrative arc. It's one that he hopes people will come to see when his musical opens in October at the Point Park Playhouse.

"I grew up in a time watching this town call around where the same people who were calling him every racial epithet imagineable came to see, no, no, no, this is wrong and this guy is right," Steriopoulous said. "He really turned this blue collar steel town around when it was still a blue collar steel town in a way that I think, still makes a difference today."

He spent years researching and working on this musical, "21." Meanwhile, another playwright, Luis Caballero in Puerto Rico was also creating a theatrical piece about Clemente.

"Well, basically as a Puerto Rican man that I am, we knew about Roberto Clemente," Caballero said. "I mean you go to Puerto Rico, there’s hospitals, schools, his name is everywhere, so I knew about him as a baseball player."

It wasn’t until he started working on this musical that Caballero learned about the struggles he endured in the U.S. and his charity work.

His musical, "Clemente: The Legend of 21" was originally known as "DC- 7," the plane Clemente was on when he died taking relief supplies to earthquake survivors in Nicaragua. It's been performed in several cities. And this past weekend, it was in Pittsburgh at the Byam Theater, at the foot of the Clemente Bridge.

Clemente’s son, Luis, said he's seen the performance.

"I like the fact that they touch many different aspects of who my father was, not only the baseball side but also the humanitarian which we believe is the most important legacy he left us," he said. 

Modesto Lacen has been playing Clemente in the bilingual theatrical performance.

"I think Roberto is more relevant now," he said. 

It might be a different era, Lacen said, but issues of equality and poverty and race are as pressing now as they’ve ever been.

Like a police brutality scene, where for no reason, Clemente and a friend get stopped by two police officers. Clemente tries to rationalize with the officers, who yell racial epithets at him and then beat him. 

Lacen said that scene resonates with him and with audiences.

"Still today we’re still dealing with the race issue, being black and being Latino and not fitting in the box of what some people think is a black person or a Latino person," he said. 

He said he hopes his performance will introduce Clemente to a new generation and a new audience.