Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
With mastery over the crowd (and cues from lighting, sound, and a pair of large digital monitors) the cast calms the throng to direct attention to brief skits and short plays, scribed for the occasion by an array of talented Latino authors. Some of these are middling while others deliver heart-stopping poignancy or laughter-inducing humor. "Last Day Ever" by Octavio Solis comes early and indicates that this party is not only about good times. In Solis' work a group of friends surround a man who is losing his grip on memory, reality, and life itself, having received a terminal (though unspecified) diagnoses, and the race from place to place around San Francisco Bay, reliving and memorializing their shared lives.
"Utah/Driving Black, Riding Brown" by Maria Isa is about a couple driving from California to Colorado stopped by a state trooper in Utah, just miles before the Colorado border where cannabis is legal. It's a witty poke at inequities and priorities in our system of laws, ending with a catchy song set to Latino rhythms. "Life en la Cuidad" is the most potent piece. Written by Sean San José, based on Junot Diaz's novel "This is How You Lose Her," it is about a teenage boy, his mother who left the Dominican Republic to start life over in the U.S, his older brother Rafa, and Rafa's girlfriend. It is a simple slice of life with brief joys and lasting grief, beautifully written and acted with fidelity to the characters.
"Ride or Die" might be missed by some audience members. Performed on the balcony beside DJ Latinidad's set-up with dance music blaring during one of the audience dance breaks, it starts as a conversation between two women drowned out by the noise of the party around them. Their dialogue is projected on the two monitors and a limited number in the audience can actually hear the actors by donning one of the sets of headphones suspended from the ceiling (I counted six sets, though I may have missed some). As the women exchange tales of woe, a third charactera male TV producersteps in, having overheard them, and suggests their lives would make for a boffo TV show.
A child's notion of buying, selling, and finding your place in the world is the basis of "The Store: A Lemmon Jackson Adventure" by Christopher Diaz, performed with a tart blend of innocence and irony. "Americanos" is the last scripted work, with three Latinas competing over whose immigration status is the most illegal. It is a funny piece, offering insights into how it feels to be an alien even among your own people, ending with a vocal performance that funnels the piece from broad humor to tender longing.
The only misfire was the "Cameo" guest-spot, with different performers appearing on different days (schedule is available at mixedblood.com). At the opening performance, Michael Jackson impersonator Luis Costillo filled the bill. Mr. Costillo is talented and, judging by his name, is Latino, but the act added nothing to a sense of immersion in the diversity of Latino experience. The audience around me seemed not to mind, as they cheered his performance, and it gave the other cast members a break they no doubt needed without disrupting the energy-flow of the event with an intermission.
Mark Valdez conceived and directs this performance event and has orchestrated the movement of his actors from the center of the auditoriumwhich has all seats removed, save a few benches around the periphery for those in need of a breakto the end of the hall, to the DJ's balcony, and the stairs leading to it, so the audience can follow the flow of the performance, stopping mid-dance step to draw viewers to the next scripted moment. Brian Bose choreographed several numbers for the cast, both within the context of a skit, and to take the center of the floor during the communal party, with movements that are full of joyful energy and open sensuality.
Every member of the cast has a spot or two to shine, while performing with brio as an ensemble. Ricardo Vazquez especially shines as Lemmon Williams and as Raff in "Life en la Cuidad," and Christopher Rivas is heartbreaking as Raff's younger brother who narrates the piece. Raúl Ramos is riveting as the central figure of "The Last Day," Brian Bose and Natalie Camas find the humor drawn from beaten-down lives in "Utah/Driving Black, Riding Brown," and Mildred Ruiz-Sapp ignites the room with powerful and sultry vocals. Thallis Santesteban completes the dynamic ensemble, and Breakbeat Lou holds center court as DJ Latinidad, presiding over the ebb and flow of the entire production.
There are a few set pieces, but the physical production is mainly created by Paul Whitaker's vibrant lighting design and C. Andrew Mayer's sound design, keeping eyes and ears constantly engaged. Trevor Bowen has created an array of costumes, easily changed from one short piece to the next, each designed to help create the character and the tone of the work.
DJ Latinidad's Latino Dance Party is not a play or musical in any traditional sense, but it is theater. Drawing in the audience with hard-to-resist dance music builds engagement and good will, putting everyone in a cheering frame of mind. It is great fun (unless you don't care for loud, thumping music or have difficulty being on your feet for much of 90 minutes) and a welcome change from the typical dramatic depiction of a communityLatino, Native, African American or any otherthrough serious-minded work, instead celebrating the joys while acknowledging the hardships they endure, all within the context of affirmation. For those who just want a good time, this is it. For those who want something deeper, some substance and something to think about when the music ends, DJ Latinidad's Latino Dance Party is that too.
DJ Latinidad's Latino Dance Party continues at the Mixed Blood Theatre through March 26, 2016. 1501 S. Fourth Street, Minneapolis, MN. Tickets are $20 for reserved admission. Radical Hospitality tickets are free at the door prior to performances. For tickets call 612-338-6331 or go to mixedblood.com.
Writers: Junot Diaz, Kristoffer Diaz, Michael John Garcés, Virginia Grise, Maria Isa, Melinda Lopez, Joe Minjares, Sean San José, Tanya Saracho and Octavio Solis; Conceived and Directed by: Mark Valdez; Choreographer: Brian Bose; Set Design: Efren Delgadillo Jr.; Costume Design: Trevor Bowen; Lighting Designer: Paul Whitaker; Sound Design: C. Andrew Mayer; Properties: Genoveva Castaneda; Stage Managers: Chris Code, Jamie Kranz and Laura Topham; Technical Director: Alix Olsen.
DJ: Breakbeat Lou; Ensemble: Brian Bose, Natalie Camas, Raúl Ramos, Christopher Rivas, Mildred Ruiz-Sapp, Thallis Santesteban, Ricardo Vazquez.