Audience Packs House for Performances of “Down These Mean Streets” and “The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao”

By Erica Varlese. Reprinted from The Manhattan Times.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Díaz waxed philosophical during a Q&A with hundreds of audience members after a riveting performance of his novel “The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.” Staring out at the packed house at the Malcolm X and Betty Shabazz Cultural Center on Sat., June 11 and seeing the hundreds of beaming Latino faces staring back, Díaz spoke about the need for literature and art to include the lives of all Americans equally.

Elvis Nolasco, left, and Junot Díaz after Nolasco’s one-man performance of “The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” for which Díaz won the Pulitzer Prize in 2008, at the Shabazz Center on Sun., June 11. (Photo: Mike Fitelson.)

Elvis Nolasco, left, and Junot Díaz after Nolasco’s one-man performance of “The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” for which Díaz won the Pulitzer Prize in 2008, at the Shabazz Center on Sunday 11 June 2011. (Photo: Mike Fitelson.)

“A moment like this really shows how little our world and our reality are reflected back to us with any grace, love and beauty,” Díaz said. “[It shows] how much corporeal deficit in this country we have for being nourished in this way.”

The dual productions of “The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” and Piri Thomas’ “Down These Mean Streets” was part of a collaboration between the Northern Manhattan Arts Alliance, TeatroStageFest, the Bago Bunch, and the American Place Theatre for the Uptown Arts Stroll. The adaptations themselves were a product of the American Place Theatre’s “Literature to Life” series in which popular novels are adapted to the stage and brought to theaters, schools, and community centers throughout the country.

Last month, Díaz and Thomas received the Literature to Life Award from the American Place Theatre. “We decided to [adapt two books] this year because they both talk about the Latin diaspora and immigration,” said David Kener, executive director of the Theatre. “And ‘The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao’ is a major modern novel, it really invents its own form.”

Prior to the show, Susana Tubert, executive director and co-founder of the Latino International Theater Festival of New York and executive producer of TeatroStageFest, announced that this was the fifth year of the Latino theater festival. “I have been looking for many years for the perfect production to bring to Northern Manhattan,” she said. The two productions were first events TeatroStageFest has held in Washington Heights.

“When I heard about the Junot Díaz play,” she continued, “I was very excited because he’s one of the great Dominican authors. [The two plays are] perfect companion pieces.”

The plays were performed in the Theatre’s typical style: one actor reading dialogue on a minimalistic set. “Down These Mean Streets” was presented first and played to a full house. For “Oscar Wao,” additional seats had to be set up, filling the room.

Performed by Elvis Nolasco, who grew up in the Southern Heights, “Oscar Wao” tells the story of an overweight Dominican boy from New Jersey whose obsession with science fiction and a family curse plague him on his quest for love and self-acceptance.

Nolasco’s performance had the audience laughing, as he added comedic asides to the tragic story. Nolasco showcased his exceptional artistic talent by embodying a dozen characters during the 70-minute performance, a condensed version of the story. Every word he spoke, however, was in the book.

“That felt like you ran for an hour and ten minutes straight with 12 characters strapped to your back,” Díaz told Nolasco during an audience Q and A after the show.

Nolasco, who is of Dominican heritage, said he was moved both by the story and because his mother used to take him to the Shabazz Center when he was a kid. “To be in Washington Heights and this facility, it means a lot,” he said, later adding that he also had the opportunity to perform the piece at his old high school on the George Washington High School Campus.

Jamil Mena, who performed “Down These Mean Streets,” brought Thomas’ classic memoir to life with a similarly energized performance. “Mean Streets” follows the story of a Puerto Rican youth as he struggles to find his place in the world. Mena portrayed the author as a hyperactive kid who stumbles down the wrong path, opening and closing the performance by yelling, “Here I am world!” from an East Harlem rooftop. Mena’s performance also received a standing ovation.

When asked, the vast majority of the audience responded that they had read one or both of the novels. According to Tubert, a study conducted by TeatroStageFest found that a large percentage of the festival’s audience members over the years came from Northern Manhattan.

Junot Díaz was in the audience during a performance of his novel “The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” at the Shabazz Center on Saturday 11 June 2011. (Photo: Mike Fitelson.)

Junot Díaz was in the audience during a performance of his novel “The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” at the Shabazz Center on Saturday 11 June 2011. (Photo: Mike Fitelson.)

The growing local thirst for theatrical performances was also evident in two other events earlier in the day.

Over 30 people attended a reading of “When Tito Loved Clara” by author Jon Michaud at the lounge Apt. 78. The story, much of which takes place in Inwood, was the first selection for a new book club organized by Led Black, the editor of the local blog Uptown Collective. That afternoon also featured the last of five performances organized by the People’s Theatre Project, which took place at the Inwood Public Library.

The day was capped with the twin stage productions at the Shabazz Center, attracting hundreds of audience members.

“Young Latinos here really want to see more of their own on the stage. I think doing this in the Arts Stroll is quite an opportunity to do that,” said Sandra Garcia-Betancourt, NoMAA’s executive director.

The resounding success of the evening was also a tremendous victory for the Bago Bunch, the 16-month-old special events arm of the Heights Entertainment production company. Two of the Bunch’s principals, Paola Pie Soto and Michael Diaz, knew about the “Oscar Wao” adaptation early on and dreamed of bringing it uptown. They worked with American Place Theatre and the Shabazz Center to secure the date then coordinated with TeatroStageFest and NoMAA to share it between the two simultaneous festivals.

It’s the first time that the Bago Bunch has produced an event of this size, having focused on holding regular networking events and mixers since being founded in March 2010.

“It was amazing, beyond anything that we imagined,” Paola Pie Soto said during a phone interview. “A lot of people were skeptical, but we proved them all wrong, which we love to do.”

Soto, who was the evening’s hostess, said she got emotional during Junot Díaz’ remarks when he spoke of the need for Latinos and other immigrant communities to celebrate their own stories.

“[The Bago Bunch] wants to bring these stories to our own backyard and give them the value they deserve,” Soto said. “It solidifies our mission to bring art and culture to Washington Heights and leave our mark in Northern Manhattan as the new hub of where these stories are coming from. The future American classics are going to come out of what’s happening here now.”

Based on the full house, the enthusiastic reception, and the deep discussion about Latino presence in the arts after the play, it appeared that the audience members agreed.

Both “Down These Mean Streets” and “The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” are available to bring to high school classrooms. For more information, go to http://www.americanplacetheatre.org/.

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