America has a way of rearranging your soul, whether you want it to or not.
For immigrants and refugees, whether recently arrived from Syria or two generations descended from San Juan, holding onto an ethnic and cultural identity can sometimes seem like grasping at invisible threads.
The slow dilution of cultural integrity and identity, by violence or by apathy, is a central theme in Quiara Alegría Hudes’ play, “The Happiest Song Plays Last,” now running in Raíces Theatre Company’s often-riveting production directed by Victoria Perez in the Manny Fried Playhouse.
The show is the third in Hudes’ trilogy, which also includes the Pulitzer-winning “Water by the Spoonful,” produced last year by Road Less Traveled Productions, and “A Soldier’s Fugue,” of which Raíces recently mounted a reading.
Set on opposite sides of the world – in a gritty Philadelphia neighborhood and an independent movie set in the middle of the Jordanian desert – it concerns two cousins of Puerto Rican descent dealing with the complex and potentially soul-shattering effects of American life.
For Elliot (Anthony Alcocer, in a standout performance), a former Marine haunted more by the ghosts of his military service than those of his ancestral island, an opportunity to act in a film about terrorism in the Middle East provides an opportunity to make something more of his life. His cousin Yaz (Marta Araceli), more closely tied to her roots and her people, is a successful professor who moved to a downtrodden community in North Philly from a comfortable condo life in order to serve as a mother figure for the neighborhood.
Yaz’s optimism about her neighborhood, despite its manifold challenges, is infectious. It’s like an old Victorian house, she says: “You have to live in it while you fix it up.” She carries on her shoulders the responsibility to maintain a sense of community and culture by making her kitchen into a shared space.
Her door is always unlocked, and neighborhood characters, like the developmentally challenged Lefty (Dewell Pérez) often flow through for a plate of food and a bit of advice. An older man, the musician Augustin (the fine Rolando Martín Gómez), also comes through the door and eventually into Yaz’s heart.
Elliot, meanwhile, is in recovery mode from his military service. He puts on a brave face as he performs with fellow actor and budding love interest Char (Ana Vafai), whose multi-ethnic background stands in stark contrast to Elliot’s definitively Puerto Rican identity. While on location in Jordan, Elliot and Char befriend an Iraqi-born man living under the radar (Monish Bhattacharyya), whose own struggles to both hide and maintain his own cultural identity help to put things in perspective.
Each of Hudes’ deftly written characters, even if they sometimes walk the tightrope between clichéd musing and genuine insight, is a study in the challenges of bringing your ancestral identity and values into a confused and confusing modern context.
They’re all looking for one thing, as voiced by Augustin when he finally wins the attention of Yaz: “I know where I’m from. I know who I am. And now, I know where I’m going.”
The play is shot through with poetic references and reveries about the joy of Puerto Rican music, specifically the tradition of playing the cuatro, a difficult guitar-like instrument particular to the island. And that music comes alive beautifully in the hands of musicians Rafael Pérez, Jorge Rodríguez and Pedro Rodríguez.
And though the play verges on the maudlin, Hudes’ addictive writing and Victoria Perez’s pace and ear for humor make it an experience equal parts charming and reflective. You’ll walk out of the theater thinking hard, like every character in the show, about where you’re from, who you are and where you’re going.
"The Happiest Song Plays Last"