Forth Worth — I confess: I’m nerdy, but not as high strung as Lelly Santiago, one of the lead characters in Kristoffer Diaz’s Welcome to Arroyo’s. I can’t resist a play that has its theoretical underpinnings well-placed—with references to early existentialist Søren Kierkegaard and Palestinian-American cultural theorist Edward Said and his seminal work, Orientalism—and shows them off just at the right moment. The sushi sequence in Arroyo’s is brilliant.
If you don’t know who they are, or if you don’t know that Puerto Ricans from the South Bronx played a key role in the development of hip-hop in the 1970s, Google it.
It’s hard not to love a play that sends the viewer on a quest, as does Diaz’s witty play. A Pulitzer Prize finalist for his Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity and a New York Times 2011 Outstanding Playwright winner, Diaz’s dramaturgy offers a fresh take on contemporary playwriting, one that engages millennial audiences especially. While I don’t fall into that generational bracket, here is a laundry list of things I find irresistible:
• A play that has a truck-load of characters, especially if six of them are purely dancers. The dancers aren’t written in the script, but applause to Artes de la Rosa for adding this element and for consistently producing large cast works.
• A performance that is high on energy; has crisp choreography no matter the dance style (awesome work by associate director/choreographer Austin Ray Beck); excellent dancing (the aforementioned six, called The Crew); a cast of actors who embody not only their individual roles, but project the feeling to the entire house; judicious directing (by Adam Adolfo); a visually appealing set (Bradley Gray); and even though I am not an ardent fan of hip-hop, great music.
The laundry list of “I am a sucker for…” continues with plays that explore dramatic/narrative terrain that debunks the stale “well-made play” paradigm (Aristotle’s famed well-ingrained dramatic arch). Diaz’s Welcome to Arroyo’s employs various theatrical tropes to narrow the distance between the audience and the performance. Besides the dramatic action, led by actors Emma Leigh Montes (as Molly), Kyle R. Trentham (as Alejandro) and Matthew Perry Smith (as Officer Derek), there are two narrators who help tell the story: Lelly Santiago (played by Elizabeth Thresher) and the DJs (Jordan Justice and Magdiel Carmona).
The main storyline follows Lelly’s search for the identity of an early key Puerto Rican female hip-hopper, Reina Rey, deceased and now erased from the historical record. This quest takes her to the brother-and-sister team of Alejandro and Molly, owners of Arroyo’s, a family owned former bodega-turned-lounge on New York’s Puerto Rican Lower East Side.
The other set of narrators appear right from the start as hip-hop DJs, Trip “Trizzy” Goldstein (Justice) and Nel “Nelly” Cardenal (Carmona). They animate the ambiance, address the audience directly, interrupt scenes, play with time and use rewind. Hip-hop techniques of the spin back and rewind are used not just on the music but on the action itself. Adding to the subtext are well-known hip-hop songs, from LL Cool J’s “Mama Said Knock You Out” to Janet Jackson’s “Got ‘Til It’s Gone,” which samples Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi,” a song with these relevant lyrics:
Don't it always seem to go
That you don't know what you've got
’Til it's gone
While there are two sets of narrators, one could argue that there are also two sets of chorus, as in the tradition of classical Greek theater—one that speaks and the other, dancing. The chorus of six dancers called The Crew (played by Alexander Sauceda, Logan Hudson, Fidencio Vazquez, Celeste Spangler, Nathan Scott and Mindamora Rocha) are important in the storytelling. DJs Nel and Trip could be conceived as playing the double role of narrators and chorus.
Much like hip-hop itself, Diaz offers multiple layering on a single storyline: that of the dramatic action of which Alejando, Molly, Officer Derek (whose last name is, yes, Jeeter, which sounds like the shortstop); Lelly, who pops in and out of the dramatic action into narration; The Crew as dance and graffiti visuals but not aural narrators of the hip-hop presence in the story; and then we have the DJs. They not only literally deejay the plot along, entering and exiting the dramatic action, but they offer witty and humorous interventions in several scenes.
While I loved the complexity, it did have at least one spectator a bit baffled. During the intermission lady’s powder room break, one middle-aged spectator asked me, out of the blue, if I had any idea of what was going on in this play. “Hmm, yes, I do.” And I tried to explain, which leads me to think that while this piece may very well work for open-minded spectators of any age, it may leave those who expect a traditional plot structure out in the dark. This is not to imply that this play is out of reach; it just requires relaxing into the story and letting it take you for a fun ride without attempting to make it fit into preconceived categories.
Thresher as Lelly is completely believable as the hyper-nerdy, witty and confused-about-her-Puerto Rican-identity-as-white-girl-who-left-the-barrio-to- pursue-doctoral-degree. As Molly, Montes packs a punch or two with the defiance of an emerging 18-year-old self-defined graffiti artist. Trentham, as her elder brother and holder of the fort at Arroyo’s, comes across as steady but not stuffy. And Smith, as the humorously named Officer Derek Jeter (yes, as in the former New York Yankee shortstop) sparked the romantic interest of the rebellious Molly.
Without giving too much away, this play uses the tried-and-true formula of opposites attracting. At times Montes’ Molly seems to overwhelm Smith’s Officer Derek, suggesting that maybe the blond, blue-eyed officer might want to up the amp on his seduction energy (Diaz’s character description has him as African-American). As the DJs, Justice and Carmona dish out the right amount of groove to keep the audience in a participatory call and response; while the dancers had me looking for a false step here or there, which never came.
Even if you are not totally into hip-hop, this play is still loveable. Flawless dancing. Economical and efficient use of space at the Rose Marine Theater. Dedicated performances.
The pace is clipped but not choppy in the first half of the show, and drags a bit in the second half, which feels longer than the first. My guess is that this does not have as much to do with the performances as it does with the script itself.
This vibrant and entertaining play with hip-hop music touches on the themes of cultural identity, reclaiming erasures in the historical record, and lastly, it calls upon us to listen to each other (Lelly thanks the audience for listening, several characters thank each other for same).
On that note, I hope the house manager listens: please make the house a bit warmer! We don’t need to freeze to stay awake. The play does an excellent job of ensuring that.
It’s a total package of entertainment that, for me, made the drive from North Dallas to Fort Worth’s Northside worthwhile.
» Teresa Marrero is Professor of Latin American and Latina/o Theater at the University of North Texas Departments of Spanish and Dance and Theater. Marrero is a steering committee member of the national network, the Latina/o Theater Commons