For thousands of Western New Yorkers hailing from other parts of the world, whether longtime residents or recent arrivals, the Raíces Theatre Company’s irresistible production of Carmen Rivera’s play “La Gringa” will undoubtedly strike a profound chord.
The show opened Thursday night in the Road Less Traveled Theatre to an ecstatic reception from a diverse crowd eager to celebrate the triumphant return of Victoria Pérez’s Latino theater company to the scene after a 10-year absence.
The sounds pouring out of the theater Thursday night – the live music performed by Grupo Variedad, the boisterous introduction from director Sheila M. Lopez (“Buenas noches, mi gente!”), the riotous laughter and applause – formed the satisfying soundtrack of a niche being filled, a need being satisfied.
That need – for Buffalo’s large Latino population to have access to plays and musicals about their experiences – has long been apparent. Perez’s first attempt to fill it ended after two disappointing seasons a decade ago, but the enthusiasm with which her audience embraced the show and company on opening night seems to bode well for its return.
Rivera’s play, set in Puerto Rico, is a colorful and melodramatic exploration of the rootlessness of the immigrant experience. With great humor and unabashed love for its characters and their struggles with identity, it challenges audiences to think about the inherent conflicts involved in hailing from one place by blood or birth and living in another.
When those places are as different as small-town Puerto Rico and New York City, as they are for the play’s young protagonist Maria (Sarielys Matos), those conflicts become larger-than-life and the solutions seem farther away.
Maria, who was born in New York and is obsessed with her Puerto Rican heritage in an academic way, is visiting the island for the first time. Her Puerto Rican aunt and cousin (Smirna Mercedes-Pérez and Victoria Pérez) treat her with suspicion and doubt, viewing her as a greedy American who has come to stake her claim on a homeland to which she has never really belonged. (“Just because somebody read a book on Puerto Rican doesn’t mean they’re Puerto Rican,” Victoria Pérez’s character said.)
But Maria’s motives are genuine. She has come to the island in an attempt to resolve the gnawing sense of rootlessness that plagues so many sons and daughters of immigrants. They are always in a state of existential limbo, stuck by circumstances on plots of land that they are in but not of.
Fortunately for Maria, not everyone on the island is hostile. Her uncle Manolo (Ronaldo M. Gómez, whose rough-edged performance is one of the highlights of the show) helps her come to the hard-won realization that her bifurcated identity is just as valid and beautiful as that of any long-descended native.
These ideas come across beautifully in Lopez’s charming production, which effectively utilizes a cast with a wide range of acting experience. Matos captures Maria’s charming naiveté convincingly, adding credible layers of outrage where necessary. As the colorful Manolo, Gómez is an absolute riot, simultaneously dispensing sage-like wisdom and hamming it up at every opportunity. Pérez adopts the sweetly sarcastic pose at which she is so adept for her character, which works well in concert with Mercedes-Pérez’s cool approach to her staunch character. As the farmer Monchi, with whom Maria has a brief flirtation, José A. Rivera is appealing and magnetic.
As we follow Maria from the kitchen of her aunt’s house out to Monchi’s nearby farm and eventually into the Puerto Rican rainforest, we see her gradually shedding her preconceptions and gaining a grip on her new identity. She learns, like so many members of Raíces’ potential audience, that it’s possible to be in two places – and of two places – at once.