Arts & Culture

From Puerto Rico… With Love?

by Danny Reinan, Staff Writer

Last week I saw the premiere of Teatro del Pueblo’s From Puerto Rico… With Love?, a stunning double-feature of solo performances by Javier Morillo, an actor, writer and political activist, and Beliza Torres Narváez, an artist, scholar and professor of theater at Augsburg University. Both performers swung between satirical humor and heartfelt melodrama in their performances, which explored the performers’ Puerto Rican identities in the context of the diaspora.

Morillo’s piece, Broken English, Mother Tongue, explores his complex relationship with Puerto Rico and the mainland US, having grown up on a US Army Base in Puerto Rico. Morillo juxtaposes levity and tragedy throughout the piece by alternating segments between two characters: “the Professor,” a character who quizzes the audience on Puerto Rico’s history and politics, and himself, sharing personal stories from his life. As the Professor, Morillo asks the audience several trick questions, all of which draw humor from Morillo’s brutal dissection of the answers. After taking interludes to speak as the witty Professor, Morillo can immediately jump into somber authenticity when he presents heartfelt anecdotes from his life – whether this is his struggle to come to terms with his Puerto Rican identity when living in the mainland US, his fear of his father’s PTSD and alcohol-fueled outbursts or his mother’s tooth-and-nail struggle against tuberculosis. 

The humor of the segments with the Professor contrast Morillo’s somber stories and make their power even more palpable. One of the most impactful ways that Morillo’s piece uses duality is his use of English and Spanish. He alternates between the two languages and speaks to how growing up bilingual impacted him. A recurring line throughout the performance – “My mother tongue is my mother’s tongue: Spanish and a little bit of broken English” – plays into this duality while further expressing the depths of Morillo’s love and admiration for his mother. The final, most raw instance of duality is when Morillo opens up near the very end of his performance about how the 2016 presidential election and 2017 hurricanes changed the content of his performance. He ends his performance on a grave but earnest note – “I’m not a praying man, but I pray that things won’t remain this way.”

Torres’s performance, Resabios de Amargura (That Bitter Cabaret), by contrast, is far more light-hearted and humorous, while remaining just as biting and political as Morillo’s. Torres plays Lola Amapola, a whimsical Puerto Rican singer and wannabe diva who is completely in love with the idea of the mainland US. After kicking off her performance with a love ballad and a blatantly obscured retelling of the relationship between Puerto Rico and the mainland US, she decides that she must act on her feelings of love towards the mainland and travels there in hopes of finding greater prosperity and living up to her potential. 

Amapola quickly discovers that the mainland US isn’t the glamorous place that she thought it to be. She is detained at the airport, has her US Citizenship continuously debated and struggles to find a place for herself – she doesn’t feel a sense of belonging in a tiny village near the Canadian border, in the Big Apple or on the sunny shores of California. Lola sets off on a boat to return to Puerto Rico, but she is never seen again. Did she end up on the shores of a different island, did she perish on the trip, or did she return to Puerto Rico? In the final moments of the piece, Torres blends Lola’s narrative with her own when she finally mentions her own struggles with her identity against the backdrop of the Puerto Rican diaspora. “If [Lola] returns to the island, will she recognize her?” Torres wonders. “Will I recognize her? Will I recognize myself?”