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Che Guevara's Last Night Relived on NYC Stage

By Claudia Parsons

After writing "The Motorcycle Diaries" screenplay, Jose Rivera felt he had more to say about Ernesto "Che" Guevara so he wrote a play he says shows the Latin American revolutionary would have had plenty to say about the war in Iraq.

"When you're in a situation where you're killing people and no one really knows why, the times require someone to ask those questions," Rivera said in an interview in New York, where his new play "School of the Americas" opens on Thursday.

"Che was always asking those questions and criticizing U.S. imperialistic impulses all over the world," he said.

Rivera, a Puerto Rican raised in New York, said some of the dialogue speaks directly to the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

"The things that Che says in the play are things that people feel around the world. Che said in the 1960s the greatest enemy of mankind is the United States, and there would be people who say that today," he said.

The play is the story of Guevara's last night before his death in Bolivia, where he spent the final year of his life trying to foment a communist uprising. The Argentine guerrilla, a key figure in Cuba's revolution, was captured by government troops and held in a village schoolhouse while the Bolivian and U.S. governments decided his fate.

A schoolteacher named Julia Cortes insisted on being allowed to visit him and befriended him.

Rivera said he came across her story while doing research for "The Motorcycle Diaries," the 2004 film about the young Guevara's transformative journey through Latin America with a friend. Cortes, now in her 70s, was interviewed for a Swiss documentary Rivera came across.

"I was very taken with her presence. She talked about meeting Che and what they talked about, and I had this feeling that it really changed her life," Rivera said. "I started to imagine this story of Che's last friendship."

Hero to Some, 'Devil' to Others

Rivera said he imagined the conversations in the play that range in subject from Guevara's marriage and children, to his mother's influence, his ideals and philosophy, as well as some doubts about the path he took in his final years.

"In several interviews Julia talks about the kinds of things they talked about but it's all very sketchy," Rivera said, adding that since writing the play he had spoken to Cortes, tracked down in Bolivia by a relative of Patricia Velasquez, the Venezuelan actress who plays Cortes.

"Patricia was able to have a phone conversation with her and they arranged for Julia to go to a cyber-cafe and we had a cyber conversation over the Internet with the whole cast."

"No one knows but her really what happened in that room," Rivera added.

Rivera, who was nominated for an Oscar for "The Motorcycle Diaries," was 13 when Guevara was killed in 1967 and he remembers it well. "He was a big hero with my family."

"That was the time period when Martin Luther King was killed and Bobby Kennedy was killed and Malcolm X was killed, so it seemed to be part of the times that all our heroes were being killed one by one," Rivera said.

He said Guevara was as controversial a figure at that time as he is today -- "a devil" for many expatriate Cubans and critics of Fidel Castro's communist revolution; a handsome, idealistic and charismatic cult figure for "60s college kids" and many leftists, particularly in Europe.

"My daughter wore a Che T-shirt to school and she was criticized by one of the teachers saying 'He's a terrorist,' and 'Why would you glorify a terrorist?'," Rivera said, adding that he does not expect to take the new play to Miami.

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