BERKELEY -- Rita Moreno is a liar.

Or so it seems, when the star of film and stage -- blisteringly beautiful in clingy black dress and with a mind sharper than partisan politicians on the campaign trail -- claims to be 81 years of age.

Joining KQED radio's longtime "Forum" host Michael Krasny for an intimate, chummy interview on the Berkeley Repertory Theatre stage on March 18, Moreno defied not only the physical and neurological ravages of time, but categorization.

If her Grammy-, Tony-, Emmy- and Oscar-winning life isn't enough proof of barrier-busting, there's last year's show, "Rita Moreno: Life Without Makeup," a hit production penned by Berkeley Rep artistic director Tony Taccone.

Not to mention her recently released book "Rita Moreno, A Memoir."

Or her tendency to drop in and help the Rotary Club of Berkeley assemble food packages for families in need of support.

"Rita has come out, for no money, and put food in boxes," Montclair resident and Rotarian Pat McMillan said while waiting to have her book signed. "She's tremendously spontaneous. She makes me proud to be a woman."

The comment might delight Moreno, who closed the audience Q-and-A session at the end of the program by saying, "We need to help people more. We pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps and we were lucky."

But it was far more than luck that brought Moreno at the age of 5 from a life she loved in Puerto Rico to the heady, well-manicured, well-read lady she is today.


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First, there was a mother, determined to improve her daughter's -- and her own -- prospects. There were artists from a variety of genres, who inspired or irritated her into achievement. There was her innate sense of accomplishment.

"I always knew I was talented, though I would have died rather than have said that aloud," she said.

Perhaps more than anything else, there was a driving, fierce pain.

"It still hurts," she announced. "The first time I was called 'spic.' I took it to heart. I grew up thinking I had no self worth."

Krasny, who demonstrated his own professional mastery by planting questions like small seeds and allowing Moreno to flower in whatever direction she chose, called the actress "the ultimate un-diva."

In return, she sang a reprise of a "Happy Birthday" song she had crooned to Krasny on the radio some months before.

Clearly tickled -- by Moreno's vocal gesture as much as by a finger she curly-cued across his nearby knee -- Krasny encouraged Moreno to show off.

The New York twang of Moreno's "Happily Divorced" character, from a Broadway show in which she plays Fran Drescher's mother, prompted a dryly delivered, East Coast-accented joke: "I'm really a Jewett, in my heart of hearts."

But reflecting on a career that often felt like an ethnic prison, Moreno said, "I did so many nonwhite roles, I invented the 'universal ethnic accent.' It was demeaning, being consigned to (only) these roles."

Still, she has a powerful appreciation for the prominence her role as Anita in "West Side Story" provided.

"When I won the (Best Supporting Actress) Oscar, my first thought was 'Don't run. it's not dignified.'" she recalled.

Ascending the Academy Awards steps with dignity intact, she realized she had no speech prepared and remembered saying, "I can't believe it! Good Lord ... I leave you with that."

Between reading portions of her memoir, Moreno recounted significant moments, like a recent interview with Associate Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

"Her office called and asked if I wanted to interview her. We ended up interviewing each other. She was hilarious--we made friends. She's a gal," Moreno said.

Moreno said she plans to have another sit-down with her new buddy and hopes it happens at Berkeley Rep -- "the place where I come to do things no one else asks me to do."

Questions from the audience (especially one, asking for secrets about aging elegantly), resulted in a typical Moreno response: bold assertions, laced with humor.

Silent, with determined chin propped on sturdy fist after the aging question, Moreno waited long enough for laughter to build. With impeccable timing and customary grace, she spoke the truth.

"There aren't any" secrets, she said. "I am the most joyful person. I'm raucous, I love to laugh. I just have really terrific DNA. I move, right?"