Sunday, November 4, 2012

Empanada for a Dream by Juan Francisco Villa

By Joe Straw

There are twenty pieces of candy in a bag of M & M peanut candies. And a noisy bag at that!   The slightest touch of the bag in a theatre has a deafening sound.  Even if you roll the peanuts out of the bag onto your soft palm it’s noisy. But on this night, this guy, with an insatiable appetite, sitting in the front row, was struggling with his fingers, opening it, pulling out one – M - & - M - at – a – time, popping it into his mouth, and making a terrible racket.  I cannot tell you what I wanted to do with that bag but this being a family blog… well, it’s actually a theatre blog.  There are nights I dream of a quiet theatre.  – The narrator.

The Latino Theater Theatre Company presents Empanada For A Dream, written and performed by Juan Francisco Villa, and directed by Alex Levy, now playing at the Los Angeles Theatre Company. 

Juan Francisco Villa plays himself and other characters in this autobiographical show of friends and family struggling to survive in America. His family emigrated from Colombia, South America and end up living on Allen Street on the Lower East Side, in the middle of a Puerto Rican neighborhood, in New York City.

Juan Francisco Villa, 32, sits alone in a run down tenement building.  His walls are paper thin and grey with long scratches of light coming through on all sides.  His head is down, thinking about God.  There is just a sliver of morning light awakening his senses.  He contemplates the idea of his mortality and reaching the age of thirty-three.

“Dios will punish you.” – Juan

In the darkness, Juan tells us his nightmares are getting worse.

Now, Juan is back home.  It is not clear whether he came back for emotional or practical reasons, or maybe it’s for his thirty-second birthday. Clearly Juan didn’t want to be back in his family’s apartment in New York City. But, there he is, back to his Colombian roots, coming to terms with his family, his life, and his economic realities.  

And it is here, in the tiny apartment, where the smell of empanadas reawakens Juan’s memory of the past.  

The memory of the day begins in the early morning hours when the Colombian women in the family are gather, each with specific duties, to cook all day long “Colombian style”. If there is one memory, the best memory of Juan’s childhood, it is that his mom cooked the best empanadas in the world. And everyone is happy, the music is blaring, and they happily eat all day long.

“When I wake up, I dream to see thirty-three.” – Juan

And so, Juan takes us back to his earlier birthday, and to a Colombian tradition and happiness of having someone break a raw egg on your head for your birthday. 

“Eat what I cook.  Don’t eat like a Puerto Rican.” – Juan’s mom to Juan

His mother was the first to immigrate to the United States in 1981, where she met a man, married him and moved to 169 Allen Street, 6th Floor, in New York City.  They all slept in one bed. That relationship didn’t last and Juan’s mom left his dad and moved to the third floor.

Their gay neighbor Ricky stops by to chat.  He seems to think young Juanito is swinging to his side of the fence.  Ricky is very opinionated about everything and everyone.

“Don’t tell your mom.  God will punish you.” – Ricky

Juan confesses that his uncle introduced coke into the neighborhood and that introduction “murdered lots of people”. 

“Big Charlie O.D.ed on coke.” – Juan

Burly Tio Alvaro “was like a father to me”. He was good to Juan and promised him everything on his 11th birthday. He said he would take Juan anywhere he wanted to go on his day.

“I want McDonalds!” - Juan

So Juan, his mother, and Tio went over to McDonald on 1st Avenue and Sixth Street and Juan ordered 4 cheeseburgers.

“With no rice thingies on them.” – Juan

“Four cheeseburgers with no rice thingies on them.” – Tio Alvaro

After Juan wolfed them down.  He ordered four more.  And after he ate them, he ordered four more!

“Don’t buy more.  He’s going to be sick!” – Mom

Forty minutes later, Juan is in pain.

“Mami?” – Juan

Juan’s mother laughs at him but she concocts a potion that will cure his stomachache.  And with that concoction, Juan falls asleep to visions, of his sister, and other members of the family and community.

Juan tells us of friends and family members who were murdered, money changing hands, and of crimes of passions. Particularly of Tio Chepe, who was not involved in drugs and used to hang out with Juan, then got involved with a Colombia woman who was connected to drugs. The drug-dealer friends of his woman hurt Tio Chepe. His other uncles Tio Alvaro was arrested, and Tio Luis was arrested and spent 17 years in prison.

“I miss my father.  I miss my murdered Tios.” – Juan

Juan Francisco Villa is fantastic as himself and has astonishing characterizations of the other members of his family and neighborhood.  His movements on stage are remarkable and he is a mass of soaking flesh at the end of the performance.

But why is Juan telling us the story? Why is he back in the apartment?  What is his objective?  To seek revenge? To live beyond the age of 32? To redeem his family’s name? Why does the narration go back and forth in time?

I watched his marvelous performance, yet I was left with questions at the end.  For example, his mother holds the left side of her body close to her body, and her left arm and left leg do not work but we’re not really sure the reasons for her afflictions. The neighborhood guy who welcomes him back to the neighborhood is bent at the waist and we can only conclude that drugs did this to him.  Uncles come and go never living past the age of 32 but how does that affect Juan who is becoming thirty-two?

Sometimes we are left with dialogue that seems more like a poetry slam than a man pursuing his dream with a clear objective.   We know he left the city.  He was in Syracuse for 7 years and Chicago for 7 years but we don’t know anything about how he got out of the city, what he accomplished, or why he even came back.  Also, the narrative seemed to jump back and forth in time without a specific reason, or an event that sparks Juan to jump into those memories.

Still Juan’s physical life on stage is marvelous and it is a performance not to miss.

Alex Levy, the director, did a fine job. “Mi espanañol es malo” and there was a lot of Spanish spoken in this play but I hardly think it matters when the objective is clearer.  Also, with every new person entering the room, Juan’s relationships with those individuals need to change. Change in the way he feels about that person, how he feels about his life, and change in his perspective of life.  He, in fact, cannot be the same person after those encounters otherwise what’s the point.  Nevertheless, there was some really fine work on this night and one shouldn’t discount the whole night because I have a few silly questions.

Hana Sooyeon Kim, the Set Designer, did a nice job on the set.  Sometimes I got the feeling Juan was in a cell, rather than a home on the Lower East Side.  It was bleak but maybe his life was bleak.

Pablo Santiago was very effective as the Lighting Designer and did a very nice job.

Julian Fernandez was the Stage Manager.

Wayne Nakasone was the Technical Director.

Philip Sokoloff was the Press Representative.

José Luis Valenzuela is the Artistic Director, Latino Theater Company/LATC.

Paul Stuart Graham is the LATC General Manager.

There was something heartrending about Juan’s dream, a pain so deep, his only relief was to let the demons go, spread his realities to the winds, and have the anguish dissipate.  Perhaps that is what he wanted, perhaps that is what he got.

Run!  And take a friend from the Lower East Side.  I did and she LOVED it.

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