Self-Portrait in One Oct
Photo Credit: 
Author photo by Sammy Tunis


"Self-Portrait in One Act" excerpted from Year of the Dog, copyright 2020 by Deborah Paredez, BOA Editions,


Self-Portrait in One Act


EVERETT ALVAREZ, falls from the sky and breaks the surface of the gulf, first American aviator POW captured in Vietnam, brother to Delia


DELIA ALVAREZ, cast in the role of dutiful, patriotic, mourning sister but keeps breaking character


NARRATOR, sister and daughter and poet who prefers theatre that breaks the fourth wall


NARRATOR’S BROTHER, breaks his femur on the playing field


NARRATOR’S FATHER, breaks in his combat boots


ANTIGONE, breaks with the state and buries her brother


FRANKIE GAYE, breaks the airwaves with his voice as an Army radio-telephone operator (RTO), breaks the news about the war in letters home to his brother, Marvin


MARVIN GAYE, breaks out in song


POET-CHORUS, breaks into soliloquies by Lucille Clifton, Stanley Kunitz, and Adrienne Rich




Enter EVERETT, shot down from the flak-blackened August sky into the Gulf of Tonkin.

When his captors pull him from the water, his first response is to break into Spanish.


EVERETT:              Don’t ask me why I did that. It seemed like a good idea.


Enter NARRATOR, FRANKIE, DELIA, and POET-CHORUS across the gulf.


NARRATOR:          Theatre teaches me to speak out in superstitious code, as in

                                 “The Scottish Play” or “Break a Leg!”


FRANKIE:               The Army teaches me to speak out in code, like when you

                                  want to get through with your emergency message and

                                  there’s too much radio traffic, you say, “BREAK, BREAK.”


POET-CHORUS:      In a murderous time / the heart breaks and breaks / and lives

                                  by breaking.


NARRATOR:           In Spanish, the word for brotherhood is hermanidad. The

                                  word for sisterhood is hermanidad. It’s the same word.


DELIA:                    The mentality that calls Vietnamese ‘gooks’ is the same

                                 mentality that calls brown people ‘spics.’ It’s the same battle.




Enter FRANKIE and NARRATOR carrying the body of the NARRATOR’S BROTHER

who has broken his femur on the playing field.


Enter ANTIGONE, falling from her nest with a broken wing, nestling in near the



ANTIGONE:            I am daughter and sister to Oedipus, and my name means

                                  “in place of one’s parents.”


NARRATOR:           Unlike my brother, I’ve never broken a bone but I have

                                  broken my word.


FRANKIE:               The RTO alphabet teaches me another way to spell the

                                  words I know.


ANTIGONE:            I confess to knowing the word of the law and breaking it



FRANKIE:               Bravo Romeo Oscar Tango Hotel Echo Romeo OVER


Enter Marvin and Delia, en hermanidad.


MARVIN:                What’s going on?


DELIA:                    I have learned another way to spell “Tonkin:” T / On / Kin.


NARRATOR:          My brother is young and spared. 


DELIA:                   The war went beyond just my brother.


MARVIN:               Picket lines (sister), Picket signs (sister)


NARRATOR:          My brother’s spare parts.


FRANKIE:              Sierra India Sierra Tango Echo Romeo OVER


DELIA:                    COPY


FRANKIE:              Sierra India Sierra Tango Echo Romeo OVER


MARVIN:                What’s happening, brother? What’s happening, brother?



BROTHER:              My part is spare.


FRANKIE:                OUT


Exit FRANKIE carrying NARRATOR’S BROTHER on his back.


Sound of radio static.


NARRATOR:           Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will al-

                                  ways cleave me.


ANTIGONE:            I told my sister I had no use for her words. I’d done the

                                  deed, breaking open the earth and gathering the sticks and

                                  stones to cover our brother’s grave.


Sound of dead air.


Enter POET-CHORUS, breaking the silence.


POET-CHORUS:     break, October, speak, / …thrust / your tongue against mine,

                                 break / day


NARRATOR:           I hang blackout curtains in the bedroom, which makes it

                                  hard to see daybreak.




Enter NARRATOR’S FATHER in civilian clothes and EVERETT, returning after eight

years of captivity. They begin to slow dance together following the rhythm of a reporter’s

voice over the radiowaves.



REPORTER:            Just before you came home, your sister, Delia, said, “All hell

                                 might break loose” when you find out about her antiwar

                                 activity. What happened when you did find out about it?


Enter NARRATOR, DELIA, and POET-CHORUS, out of time.


NARRATOR:           In “The Scottish Play,” the king and queen cannot rid them-

                                  selves of the blood on their hands.


POET-CHORUS:     It is all blood and breaking, / blood and breaking


NARRATOR:           My father was young and spared.


EVERETT:               Well, first of all, all hell did not break loose.



FATHER:                  I came home in time to escort my sister to her senior prom.


EVERETT and NARRATOR’S FATHER dance together offstage.


Enter DELIA who begins a slow dance with NARRATOR to the sounds of MARVIN’s

song, “What’s Going On?”


DELIA:                    Everett will return when Vietnamese children will be able to

                                 look at the sky and clouds—


NARRATOR:          If the breaking of character is particularly serious, it is called



DELIA:                    and not fear that a bomb will drop that will burn and tear

                                 their bodies—


The sound of Marvin’s voice rises as the women continue their dirge-dance.


MARVIN voice:       Brother brother brother, there’s far too many of you dying.






"Self-Portrait in One Act" excerpted from Year of the Dog, copyright 2020 by Deborah Paredez, BOA Editions,


Deborah Paredez is a poet and interdisciplinary performance scholar whose lectures and publications examine black and Latinx popular culture, poetry of war and witness, feminist elegy, cultural memory, and the role of divas in American culture. She is the author of the award-winning critical study, Selenidad: Selena, Latinos, and the Performance of Memory (Duke 2009) and of the poetry collections, This Side of Skin (Wings Press 2002) and Year of the Dog (BOA 2020). Her poetry and essays have appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Review of Books, National Public Radio, Boston Review, Poetry, Feminist Studies, and elsewhere.


Her research and writing have been supported by the Hedgebrook Center for Women Writers, the American Association of University Women, and the Alfredo Cisneros Del Moral Foundation. She received her PhD in Interdisciplinary Theatre and Performance at Northwestern University and her BA in English at Trinity University.


Born and raised in San Antonio, she has lived on both coasts, endured a handful of Chicago winters, and taught American poetry in Paris, while remaining rooted in her Tejana love of Selena and the Spurs. She currently lives with her husband, historian Frank Guridy, and their daughter in New York City, where she is a professor of creative writing and ethnic studies at Columbia University and the Co-Founder of CantoMundo, a national organization for Latinx poets.