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Ybor City's past, present: "Why the Y?'

The challenge was to write a play about Ybor City, to be performed in Ybor City.

The play needed to address Ybor's past and present, from the bolita numbers runners and cigar factories of old to current worries that this unique place is turning into wall-to-wall cars, party time and booze. But without getting all preachy.

No problem.

Why the Y? opens tonight in, yes, Ybor City.

In it, you'll find Fidel Castro's beard. There's also an emcee named Deezo, alligators that dance a soft-shoe, a hairball that sings and three Zobops. (Zobops? They're voodoo sorcerers.)

The production has a four-piece rock band called the Ybor Orchestra and videos, and to even reach the theater, you have to walk past a pungent pile of cigar leaves.

Yes, that about covers it. Ybor is a different kind of place. And this is a ifferent kind of play.

Few places could be more pleasantly down to earth than Ybor City on a weekday morning, the brick streets damp from an early rain, the sun brightening a blue sky, a steaming cafe con leche at the Silver Ring Cafe.

But then few places could be more wild and crazy than Ybor on a weekend night, when bar-hoppers clog the sidewalks and cars cruise Seventh Avenue.

"Friday and Saturday night does not feel good anymore," says Susan Glass. "There's honking, screaming, drunks all over the place, just total chaos until 4 o'clock in the morning.

"Last Saturday, I went out to videotape the crowd on Seventh Avenue, and I got mooned."

Glass is co-founder of Hillsborough Moving Company, which presents theater in non-traditional settings. Its production of Why the Y? takes up the third-floor ballroom of the Italian Club, a grand old building with a bust of Garibaldi in the lobby.

Val Day, co-founder and director of Why the Y?, says the play tries to provoke questions about the future of Ybor City. Thus, the enigmatic title.

"It's a question that is put on Deezo, who is asked, "Why the Y in Ybor?' and it's a question that can't be answered," Day says. "We've come to the conclusion that it's a trick question, that the closer you get to it, the harder it is to answer."

Glass and Day, both in their early 30s, have been active in Ybor art circles over the past decade. Glass produces videos for the city of Tampa. Day was one of the owners of Three Birds, a popular bookstore and coffee shop on Seventh Avenue that closed this year, forced out in part by the newly flourishing bar scene.

They are the local end of this production, along with technical director Gregory Szenas. The non-local end is an acclaimed playwright who lives in Brooklyn. Mac Wellman, 49, first visited Ybor City five years ago.

Wellman is a contradictory figure. On the one hand, he has the credentials of an academic intellectual, complete with teaching jobs at Yale and Princeton. On the other hand, he is a wildly prolific playwright _ with more than 30 plays produced _ whose work has a distinctly avant-garde flavor.

Wellman also is experienced in site-specific theater. He wrote Strange Feet, a work about dinosaurs, for the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, and Crowbar, a ghost story set in the old Victory Theater in New York. Wellman's Bad Penny, originally written for Central Park in New York, was directed by Day at Tampa's Sulphur Springs Park in 1990.

With Wellman committed to the Ybor project, Hillsborough Moving Company landed a $30,000 grant from the New York-based Dancing in the Streets' OnSITE fund. The fund encourages "performances specific to out-of-the-ordinary architectural or natural settings that have special significance to their communities." (The St. Petersburg Times is also a sponsor).

The Italian Club is on the National Register of Historic Places. Built around 1920, it was the headquarters of Tampa's first Italian-American society. The handsome brick structure served several functions _ it housed a movie theater in the 1950s _ but has not been much in use lately.

"We considered three other spots in Ybor, but we chose the Italian Club because it's not that familiar," Glass says. "We want to expose people to new, different places."

Debating the future of Ybor is all the rage now.

"The bars sprung up almost overnight, and nobody stopped to think about it," Glass says. "Now, everybody has an opinion about what should happen here. A lot of people are happy about what's happening. There's money coming in, and that's seen as progress."

But Glass is one of those who fears that the district will lose what's left of its character. "It's the most unique place in all of Tampa," she says. "You can feel the history in the architecture, but now there's a neon beer sign in every window."

Why the Y? only alludes to this debate.

"I could've done more, but Val and Susan talked me out of it," Wellman says. "At one point, I had a chorus of urinators and drunken college students, but that just turns into something like a stupid TV show."

He also wanted to avoid turning the play into a lecture. "I didn't want to do knee-jerk, politically correct theater," Wellman says. "That so easily turns into "Up with People.'


No need to worry about that, not with a fortune teller turned lounge singer and other creative incarnations of Ybor historical figures. Wellman was especially taken by racketeer Charlie Wall, who ran the city's bolita.

"When Estes Kefauver had a Senate subcommittee on organized crime in the 1950s, Charlie Wall showed up, looking very dapper," he says. "Kefauver said, "Well, if you've been doing all these things, how can you feel safe?' Charlie Wall said, "The devil protects me,' with a perfectly straight face."

In 1955, Wall was beaten and stabbed to death in his Ybor City home. Nobody was charged.

More than individual characters, Wellman was inspired by the Sicilian, Spanish and Cuban immigrants who worked together for the common good.

This was the Ybor of los lectores _ professional readers hired by the cigar factories to read aloud newspapers and novels to the workers _ and of labor unrest. Strikes in 1899, 1901, 1910, 1920 and 1931 forged a multi-ethnic, working-class solidarity. Mutual aid societies provided residents with cultural enrichment, education, financial assistance and health care.

"Some of the most enlightened social thinking ever in the United States took place in this little cigar town in Florida, the last place people would expect something like that to happen," Wellman says.

"It's a very odd and eccentric place, too. I mean, cigar factories? That's the most ridiculous thing in the world. And nobody got rich trying to peddle what Ybor was all about, so there is a lot of honesty and integrity to it."

Wellman says he loosely based the script on the Eumenides, the classic drama of Aeschylus in which Orestes is on trial for the murder of his mother, Clytemnestra. The goddess Athena intervenes to free him, but to mollify the furies of the underworld _ the Eumenides _ she includes them in the community's political order.

"In a way, the whole project has come from despair that you can't nail down, you can't have the final answer about a place like Ybor," Wellman says. "It's a place that represents values that I don't fully understand, that Val and Susan and their company don't fully understand, but they aspire to them.

"It goes back to the Eumenides. We have to tame the forces of the underworld, include them in our republic, and therefore we can understand how to live justly and equitably. You end up thinking of very basic values when you think about Ybor."

Recently, there was an interesting message on the phone answering machine that takes ticket reservations for Why the Y?

"It was from Maria Martinez-Ybor, a woman in her 80s, who wanted to know, "Why are you asking this question?'

" Day says, imitating an indignant grande dame. "Later, we heard from Rafael Martinez-Ybor, who's with the Bank of Tampa."

The callers are descendants of Vicente Martinez-Ybor, the Spanish cigar maker who founded Ybor City in 1886. Day invited them to attend the play.

"Both said the same thing," Day says. "They said, "People don't realize there are any Ybors left, but we are here.' "