PROVIDENCE — Plays whose theatrical narratives and cast of characters are built from historical and archival materials have been called “testimony’s ambitious sister” by the late South African Nobel Peace Prize recipient Desmond Tutu. They not only provide a voice for ordinary, often underrepresented people who have lived through extraordinary circumstances, but do so with creative embellishment and dramatic flair. And so they have the great potential to break stereotypes, enhance understanding, and foster empathy by being entertaining as well as informative.
Currently on Trinity Rep’s Dowling Theater stage is a fine example of this: the world premiere production of “La Broa’,” escrito por Orlando Hernández y bajo la dirección de Tatyana-Marie Carlo. This locally sourced work esta’ inspirada en, and adapted from, the sizable collection of Marta V. Martínez’s oral histories of the Spanish-speaking Mexicanas, Guatemaltecos, Colombianos, y Dominicanos quien se instaló en Providence, R.I., in the mid-20th century.
If you found this previous paragraph’s interweaving of English and Spanish a tad difficult to follow, well, get used to it. The bilingual “La Broa’” is delivered with love, compassion, and no subtitles. Instead, performers transition in and out of both languages, often within the same sentence, so to be inclusive to audience members with varying degrees of fluency in a second language. The playwright largely succeeds in doing so, though the quick-exchange dialogue scenes are significantly more challenging than the soliloquies, and some of the best laugh-lines tend to favor hispanohablantes (Spanish speakers).
Yes, laugh-lines. Unlike so many stagings of oral histories — which tend to be sober, heavy-handed docudramas — this two-act play and this production of it are wonderfully animated and absolutely charming.
With Doña Rosa’s Market on La Broa’ (Providence’s Broad Street) as its epicenter, this play shares the true stories of a handful of the many immigrants who gathered at places like this in the past and who gave form and flavor to the immediate community and to Providence proper. This play is, in fact, a love letter to these founding families and to their cherished haunts, whose razing or repurposing has been heartbreaking but whose reimagined resurrection here is heartwarming and magical.
Central to the storytelling is Ana (Rosalyn Tavarez), a journalism student at Providence College and ethnographer Marta V. Martínez’s avatar, and Doña Rosa (Alina Alcántara), the personification of every community’s strong, no-nonsense but unconditionally loving matriarch. As Ana interviews Doña Rosa, the stories she shares about her life and her neighbors’ and friends’ experiences with discrimination, racism, and systemic inequalities, as well as their personal triumphs and professional successes, come to life.
It does so with creative but understated stagecraft, as if more — more technological bells and whistles, more realistic construction, more volume — would lessen the nostalgic telling of these tales. For instance, the play begins simply, with a single minstrel (Jen Anaya) crossing the stage while gently playing a small acoustic guitar, signaling the sentimental journey that’s about to begin and transitioning us to another time, a different place, and a slower pace.
Scenic design by Patrick Lynch consists of a performance space that hints at a city street, complete with telephone poles littered with fliers. A raised platform at its center houses Doña Rosa’s present-day apartment, which she shares with her grown daughter (Marina Tejada). The set then opens to reveal her market from back in the day, above which a steel crossbeam houses several retro television sets that provide images (designed by Peter Sasha Hurowitz) and voiceover (thanks to sound designer Germán Martínez) to offer each story an historical context. Amanda Downing Carney’s spot-on period-establishing and character-defining costume design is terrific and — regarding the 1970′s wardrobe — welcome comic relief. Christina Watanabe’s lighting design does a great job isolating small, significant moments and private conversations.
All this creates a highly romanticized place that invites longtime Rhode Islanders to reminisce and newcomers and out-of-towners to imagine. The only misstep is the placement of a telephone pole that provides an obstructed view of the stage for patrons occupying the first seats on both sides of Aisle C.
The marvelous ensemble of players consists of pros (Alcántara, Anaya, Tejada, Jeff Ararat, Rudy Cabrera, Alexander Crespo-Rosario II, Arturo Puentes, and Madeleine Russell) and Brown/Trinity Rep MFA Program students (Tavarez and David Bertoldi). Many play several characters over the course of the production and convincingly create an intriguing community. Bertoldi and Russell have the unenviable task of playing all the white characters in the play, who tend to be well-intended but clueless to the point of moronic. It is not hard to imagine that such depictions made their way into more than one oral history.
In a playbill note, Artistic Director Curt Columbus hopes this play will bring us back to our own immigrant heritage and our family’s own stories about its first “real American experience.” It is certainly capable of doing that. But it is surely capable of capturing our attention and engaging our emotions for its duration.
Play by Orlando Hernández. Directed by Tatyana-Marie Carlo. At Trinity Rep, 201 Washington St., Providence. Through Feb. 18. Tickets are $24-$83. 401-351-4242, trinityrep.com.
Bob Abelman is an award-winning theater critic who formerly wrote for the Austin Chronicle. Connect with him on Facebook.
This article has been updated to correct the spelling of the director’s last name.