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/ Theatre Journal
ries Award, Virginia Grise’s blu is a deeply political play that focuses on the ramifications of such harrowing figures, especially for youth, by dramatizing two generations of a Mexican American family within a fictionalized “Barrio U.S.A.” blu’s title not only eponymously names the family’s eldest teenage son (played by Xavi Moreno), whose birth, life, and death (while serving as a soldier in Iraq) the play tracks, but it also announces the centrality of spiritual despair in its characters’ lives. Working through the dramaturgical schema of a fragmented memory play and relying on ensemble storytelling, blu is an absorbing mediation of “memories, dreams, rituals, and prayers” that illustrates the interplay between macro-level sociopolitical conditions in the barrio and micro-level adaptations by its Latina/o residents. Director Laurie Carlos’s staging placed emphasis on the play’s lean, poetically metered language and its ensemble-storytelling style—its most arresting element. To this end, CoA’s intimate black-box theatre held a bare minimum of set pieces to suggest blu’s barrio: a sacred tree, a column tagged with graffiti, a prison cell occupied by the family’s father Eme (pronounced ɛm-ɛ, also the name of one of the most notorious prison gangs in the California penal system) (Luis Galindo), a tiny house tumbled onto its side to signify the family’s home, and a separate pitched-roof unit (sans house) set on the stage floor that served as a liminal space between street and sky where blu’s younger sister Gemini (Alexandra Jimenez) perched during much of the play in order to better scan the stars or search the horizon. The set’s stark, open quality thoughtfully upended overdetermined “gritty” representations of the barrio, and instead offered a surrealistic landscape that lent itself to the play’s central motif of dreaming, positioned as an act of resistance against the barrio’s tribulations. blu often made use of plural-vocal dialogic exchanges among characters, an ensemble-based narrative technique that heightened the play’s theatricality and positioned it firmly away from realism, as characters spoke across time and among different spaces to describe their circumstances. In performance, these plural-vocal exchanges delivered a poetically charged choral effect that evocatively distributed the narrative task of storytelling among different sets of characters. For example, when blu and his younger brother Lunatico (Phillip Garcia) recounted the violent initiation rite of being “jumped into a gang,” they began with a shared account that quickly cut back and forth between them. Then Eme joined his sons by adding his memory of gang initiation to their visceral reenactment. Shared narration of this kind allowed the play to trace out the
utes. Early Plays, less interested in the bodies of the actors per se, accomplished this visceral audience response through song. From the spectral voices that began Moon of the Caribees to the multiple songs both scripted and not, it was when the actors were singing that their bodies reminded us of our own. Watching the actors labor in the process of singing was perhaps the only time we really saw them utilize their whole bodies onstage, evoking a bodily awareness all the more striking for its absence during the majority of the production. Throughout The Complete & Condensed the mixtures of body and object were permeable for both audience and performers. Conversely, Early Plays worked to tear apart the excessive materiality that O’Neill wrote into his texts by separating the bodies of the actors from the words they spoke and the immaterial props that accompanied them. Both productions actively worked against O’Neill’s canonical texts, stripping the playwright of both spoken and unspoken words and replacing them with material and immaterial props that paradoxically subverted and fulfilled the plays. By creatively reimagining O’Neill’s words, these two shows also proved that the somewhat imposing stage directions and dialect of the plays are not obstacles, but rather sites for potentiality. In this way, both groups proved that O’Neill’s works can have an active life outside of the realm of realism and naturalism.
BESS ROWEN The Graduate Center/CUNY
BLU. By Virginia Grise. Directed by Laurie Carlos. La Colectiva Chorizo y Maguey, with Company of Angels, Los Angeles. 30 October 2011.
In his program note, Company of Angels’ (CoA) artistic director Armando Molina explained how the world premiere of a Chicana-authored, awardwinning play like blu precisely suited CoA and its mission to produce theatre that portrays “the 80 percent” of Los Angeles residents who rarely see themselves represented onstage. He reminded his audience that the underrepresented Latina/o world of blu theatrically adumbrates barrios like Boyle Heights, the 98 percent Latina/o-populated neighborhood located just across the river from CoA’s downtown Los Angeles location. Boyle Heights has a 60 percent high school dropout rate, along with a median annual income of $24,000—disturbing statistics that also describe barrios throughout the United States. Garnering the 2010 Yale Drama Se-
Diana de la Cruz, Romi Dias, and Alexandra Jimenez in blu. (Photo: Graham Kolbeins.) pervasiveness of violence across two generations of men, and among three perspectives. Carlos’s staging enhanced blu’s plural-vocal narrative structure with nonnaturalistic, highly physical movement— in effect, powerful dances among characters that drew from expressionistic movement vocabularies, as well as sources like hip-hop. In scenes between father and sons, for example, this stylized physicality effectively upbraided the shopworn gestures of Latino male bravado and “gangbangers” with fresh grammars of masculine physicality and homosocial intimacy and proved to be some of Carlos’s most luminous staging. While Eme, blu, and Lunatico collectively showed particular social forces in the barrio, including gang life, police harassment, abasement in public schools, and the prison system, the family’s women juxtaposed these events with articulations of teen pregnancy, single motherhood, and domestic abuse. After Eme’s gang activities led to his imprisonment, the family’s mother Soledad (Romi Dias) began a relationship with Hailstorm (Diana de la Cruz), a two-spirit Xicana-Indígena woman. Their relationship offered a vision of love and family-making that foregrounded the catalytic potential of queerness. Carlos countered the male characters’ kinetic group scenes by staging Hailstorm and Soledad’s romantic intersections in intimate, ritualistic tones, where their social critiques were often infused with sensuality. Ritualistic tones blended with storytelling also carried through to scenes among Hailstorm, Soledad, and Gemini as well, most especially when Hailstorm introduced mother and daughter to the redressive figure of Coyolxauhqui—the Aztec goddess slain by her war-god brother, whose head becomes the moon—a female figure who, like Soledad and Gemini, sought to quell war and violence in her family. Indigenous articulations like these
Luis Galindo, Xavi Moreno, and Phillip Garcia in blu. (Photo: Graham Kolbeins.) among the women were imbued with ceremonial movement, music, and reverence that often came to entail the entire ensemble in shared enactments that conjured a sense of sacred ritual, even as they reminded the audience of Chicana/os’ Native origins. In this, Mexican Indian mythology not only highlighted the legacy of colonialism within the barrio’s contemporary dilemmas, but also served as a force of cultural grounding and efficacy for the women. When blu’s sociocultural critiques extricated Chicana/os’ Native origins, I could not help but feel strong resonances between blu and Cherríe Moraga’s The Hungry Woman: A Mexican Medea, which also animates the potentiality of both queerness and Chicana/o indigeneity. If blu attended to the interlocking social forces that dead-end young people’s lives in the barrio, then blu’s decision to join the military afforded its most searing example. In the play’s dissembled chronology, its story had already revealed blu’s death; therefore the play’s ending concentrated on its transpiration and implications. Hailstorm delivered one of blu’s strongest anti-war indictments by correlating military service to the barrio’s schematics: blu was merely switching out one gang for another. In a highly affecting recounting, Gemini and Eme jointly narrated how while flying in a helicopter in Iraq—finally free from the barrio’s constraints—blu was shot out of the sky. Here, the play clearly suggested that while military life held the tantalizing promises of purpose, pay, and escape for blu, in a time of war, promises of this kind are often made in exchange for young Latina/os’ lives. In response, Gemini used her grief to fashion a transformation, because blu’s death signaled an opportunity for Coyolxauhqui’s myth to be rewritten—brother did not kill sister, as the myth foretold. She vowed to resurrect the deity’s feminist energies; violence would not determine her life.
/ Theatre Journal
Somewhere, which takes its title from West Side Story—specifically, Tony and Maria’s iconic song about the hope for a “place for us”—is a dramatic homage to the Golden Age of Broadway. Each of the four central characters is immersed so much in the culture of Broadway that it has become constitutive to their sense of self and one another. The 20-year-old Alejandro first worked on Broadway as a child in the King and I, although he has given up performing, despite his mother’s protests, in order to help with the family’s expenses; Francisco, his 21-year-old brother, while less successful as an actor, carries the optimism, enthusiasm, and ambition that his younger sibling has lost; their mother, herself a cabaret singer, behaves as if Chita, Ethel, and Jerome are all familial intimates; and Rebecca, an aspiring dancer and the youngest at age 17, hopes to be cast in the upcoming film version of West Side Story, which seems likely given that the brothers’ best friend, Jamie, is Jerome Robbins’s assistant. The production at the Old Globe maximized the versatility of the actors—essential to Matthew Lopez’s dramaturgical showcase of a family of artists—by incorporating music, performance, and especially dance (beautifully choreographed by Greg Graham) throughout the show. We saw the brothers rehearsing their acting scenes; the sister dancing solo as Maria in West Side Story as she set the table for the family dinner; and the two boyhood friends, Alejandro and Jamie, attempting to recreate the specific choreography of an old sequence in an extended dance scene, which nearly stole the show. In Somewhere, someone is always performing! The Candelarias are their own best variety show, and their own best audience too. Despite the family’s boisterous pleasure in all things Broadway, the Candelarias face several challenging dilemmas that need immediate attention. Their building—in truth most of, if not their entire, neighborhood—is being razed to make room for Robert Moses’s Lincoln Center. The play addresses the complicated politics of urban renewal and ethnic belonging, as most of the inhabitants evacuated to a housing project in Brooklyn are Puerto Rican. Matthew Lopez’s subtle yet persuasive perspective asked us to consider what is lost and gained in the name of cultural progress. The play is ambitious; it is difficult, for example, to contain the play within a limited plot line. Is it about the bonds of kinship? The role of the arts? Urban gentrification? Matthew Lopez’s sophisticated dramaturgy allows his play the space to be all these things and more. While many of the local critics faulted the play for this matter, hoping for a more focused narrative, I found the play’s messiness exciting and in sync with the melodramatic and totally entertaining family situational comedy that it
blu closed with a striking, final plural-vocal ceremonial exchange by the ensemble, a threnody that transfigured the affective denotations of “blue” from dispiritedness to hope, as the family asked the life-giving blue of the ocean, sky, horizon, and their son/brother to “carry us home.” Considering the play’s resolute effort to index young Latina/o lives, it came as no surprise that a decidedly young, majority Latina/o and people-of-color constituency had populated the evening’s audience. Leaving the theatre, the palpably provoked spectators spilled into an LA night sky filled with the whirring blades of police helicopters and the faint glimmer of stars overhead, many returning themselves to their homes across the river in Barrio U.S.A.
IRMA MAYORGA Dartmouth College
SOMEWHERE. Written by Matthew Lopez. Directed by Giovanna Sardelli. The Old Globe, San Diego, California. 5 October 2011.
In the opening scene of Matthew Lopez’s excellent new play Somewhere, two brothers, Francisco and Alejandro, are battling it out in the living room of their Manhattan tenement. It is the summer of 1959 and the brothers, young Puerto Ricans, are supposed to be packing the family’s belongings before the bulldozers arrive to demolish the building later that week. The play begins in the midst of this escalating heated exchange and violence seems immanent. The palpable machismo of the moment is brilliantly and abruptly ruptured when we learn that they are not actually fighting each other, but rehearsing a scene from Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront for Francisco’s acting class. The Candelaria brothers, it turns out, are deeply entrenched in the performing arts; the play showcases their investments in film, theatre, and dance in ways that underline the role of the arts in their lives. Consider that the brothers are interrupted only when their mother, Inez, and younger sister, Rebecca, return from their jobs ushering at West Side Story at the Winter Garden, raving about Chita Rivera’s performance before arguing with the boys about the merits of Leonard Bernstein’s music for On the Waterfront and West Side Story. This family’s argot is that of musical theatre and popular culture. The fact that Inez, a Latina Mama Rose, was played by Tony Award–winning Broadway veteran Priscilla Lopez (A Chorus Line, A Night in the Ukraine, Anna in the Tropics, In the Heights), only added to the delight that the play consistently delivered as the production unfolded.
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