The Provocateur: Evelyn Diaz Cruz

If the essence of Evelyn Diaz Cruz could be bottled, the resulting effervescent energy drink would deliver a tangy jolt of pure adrenaline, volatile enough to make your eyes shoot open wide and words race one another out of your mouth.

“I grew up in the Bronx in the ‘70s,” recalls Cruz in her rapid-fire rat-a-tat-tat pace. “My family immigrated from Puerto Rico to Spanish Harlem in the 1920s. My mother moved our family to the Bronx, and then in the ‘70s moved us again to San Diego. During that time, landlords were burning buildings to collect insurance. Forty percent of the buildings in the Bronx were burned down. It was probably a good time to leave.”

The associate professor of theater arts and performance studies pauses. “And yet it was the Bronx that made me an artist. We came together as a community through street art, graffiti, music and dance. As soon as the weather got warmer, the congas would come outside and we would connect with a higher creative power.”

She laughs, remembering. “There was a lot of dancing and music. Salsa and hiphop were born in the Bronx. We had a lot of creative fun!” (Imagine the word “fun” underlined three times and elaborately scrawled three stories tall in neon spray paint on a brick wall, and you’re almost there.)

A playwright, director, actor and professor, Cruz is as passionate about sharing her love of language and theater arts as she is about social justice. Toward that end, she chooses monologues, scenes and dramatic literature for students in her classes with meticulous care.

In one acting class, Cruz offers students feedback on their work, “It’s really about, ‘How much empathy can you elicit for this person?’” she tells them. “It’s easy to horrifically judge someone, until you actually have to inhabit their body.” Once her students shake off their inhibitions — literally in the case of one warm-up exercise — shyness appears to have left the building.

During their monologue presentations, there are raw moments of bottled-up pain, hilarious moments of awed reverence at a glimpse of forbidden fruit, and gut-wrenching outpourings of grief and humanity. After each one, Cruz offers a word or two of encouragement before urging the next student to take their place front and center.

Later, in her office, she talks about many things. The criminal justice system. The workshops she’ll be facilitating this summer with underserved youth in Newark, New Jersey. Civil rights, race, gender, sexuality, feminism, pedagogy and activism: you name it, Cruz has a perspective to share.

“It is our mission at USD to provide students with a larger world perspective. And theater arts allow students to explore issues of social justice that they’re passionate about. Engaging theater for consciousness raising exposes flaws in our system in a provocative and proactive way.” — Julene Snyder