Review of ISLEÑA from Margarita Vargas!

25 Jun
Picture by Kyle Berrios

Although death and child molesting are not the central themes of Isleña, once the play ends, the audience is left with those two disheartening realities amidst the joy of childhood memories, live music, and soul-searching songs.

In the one-woman show, performed by Victoria Pérez and directed by her sister María Pérez Gómez, the intent is to portray the experience of Buffalo’s Puerto Rican community, which can be translated to that of immigrants all over the world.

What is specific to Puerto Rico in the play is its title, the food, the music, the multiple references to familiar songs, and to the coqui, which is considered the national symbol. With these elements, Victoria establishes a direct connection with the Puerto Rican audience and celebrates the significance of cultural difference.

One of the first memories the character recalls about her move to Buffalo is related to food, which tasted foreign, fake, and bland. Toward the end of the play, however, she admits to now liking mashed potatoes made out of dried flakes from a box, in other words, to assimilating. She underscores the acculturation process when she refers to the shift she had to make from Spanish to English, to Spanglish and back to Spanish.

Live music, a signature of performances by Raíces, is present in the play from the beginning.  Victoria produces a metatheatrical effect as she names each of the instruments (la clave, las congas, el guiro, and la campana) and we hear their specific sound, as well as when she mentions the coqui and out comes its loud chirp. By calling attention to itself and to experiences common to Puerto Ricans, the play topples the ubiquitous fourth wall and becomes one with the audience.

Sharing the habichuelas, arroz, and pernil she has been cooking with a member of the audience creates a similar effect. It both erases the boundary between actor and audience and forces the audience to think more critically about their own situation vis a vis the play. It becomes clear that food indigenous to the island, but transported to the north, is a reminder of the unstable ground that immigrants occupy. While on the one hand it brings comfort, on the other, it keeps them from severing all ties with the past.

The music is perhaps the most palpable connection between the audience and the play. Victoria not only refers to bombas, plenas, and salsa, but she sings and dances throughout; and you can feel the audience stirring wanting to join her on stage. When she sang, “la vida es salsa y la salsa es vida,” the audience started clapping to the rhythm of the beat. When she mentioned Danny Rivera, Yolandita Monge, Nano Cabrera, and La Tuna de San Juan heads nodded in recognition, and when she crooned “Para decir adios,” “Laberinto de amor,” “Atada a tu volcán,” “Bello amanecer,” and even “Lean on Me” you could see many members of the audience lip singing. This type of participation maintains the connection between actor and audience.

As the character is packing her bag to go to Puerto Rico in celebration of her 40th birthday, she has to deal with painful memories from the past involving a once-trusted priest. Nonetheless, she manages to come to terms with that disturbing experience and appeals to the audience’s patriotism by waving the Puerto Rican flag and reciting the chant “Yo soy Boricua, para que tu lo sepas.” The chant resonated with the audience, and they joined Victoria after she said Boricua.

Finally, in addition to celebrating and questioning Puerto Rican culture, Victoria and María are also interested in featuring the musical talent in Buffalo. Along with the band playing every night, each performance has a guest singer. The night I saw the play (Friday, June 24), Smirna Mercedes sang along with Victoria a touching bolero entitled “Mi pequeño amor” by Ednita Nazario and Laureno Brizuela.

This performance is a summer must!

ISLEÑA (Island Girl), a one-woman play by Victoria Pérez and María Pérez Gómez, featuring Victoria Pérez, directed by María Pérez Gómez, presented by Raíces Theatre runs from June 17 to July 3 at Road Less Traveled (the new home of Raíces) 456 Main Street Buffalo NY 14202 Performances are Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 pm and Sundays at 6:00 pm. Tickets can be reserved by calling 716-381-9333 or visiting ticketstripe.com/islenaonewomanshow

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