Where: Teatro Vista at Steppenwolf 1700 Theatre, 1700 N. Halsted St.
When: through May 28
By ANNE SPISELMAN
When I first read about Teatro Vista’s world premiere of Sandra Delgado’s “La Havana Madrid” at Steppenwolf’s 1700 Theatre, I thought it was going to be the story of the eponymous Latin nightclub at Belmont and Sheffield avenues in the 1960s and ’70s. I figured we’d learn who opened it and when and why, what bands played there, who the patrons were, what its heyday was like, and when and why it closed.
But that’s not what Delgado’s play is about. Apparently, little is known about the actual club (in a second-floor space now occupied by Milio’s Hair Studio) beyond the fact that Cubans opened it in the early 1960s, it became a melting pot for newly arrived Latinos, and it probably closed in the mid-1970s.
While the playwright and designers—Ashley Ann Woods (set), Heather Sparling (lights), Elsa Hiltner (costumes), Liviu Pasare (projections), Mikhail Fiksel (sound)–have transformed the intimate 1700 Theatre into a period cabaret complete with a small dance floor, her more ambitious goal is to illuminate the experiences of Latino/a immigrants to Chicago. The club is used mostly as a hook, the place her characters come for fun and the music that makes them forget the world outside. That music is provided live by Carpacho y Su Super Combo, a wonderful band, with Delgado as the lead singer named “La Havana Madrid.” We also get mini lessons in the different cultures’ styles of music and dance (mambo to salsa) and even ways of playing the bass, Carpacho’s instrument.
The bulk of the two hours, however, is devoted to monologues by a handful of immigrants. Based on extensive interviews Delgado conducted, these are composite portraits, though I suspect some are less composite than others. Maria (Krystal Ortiz), sent from Cuba to the U.S. with masses of other children (without their parents), is the first to tell her story, and it is a sweet-sad blend of discovery, slow assimilation, and homesickness rich with often funny details.
The second account comes from Colombian couple, Henry (Tommy Rivera-Vega) and Maruja (Phoebe González), who we see at the club celebrating their first anniversary. Their halting romance starts back home in Medellin, and after he emigrates because jobs are easier to find in the U.S., they have to get married long distance because her conservative parents won’t let her join him otherwise.
The tone gets angrier and more political with the next three tales, all from Puerto Ricans. Carlos (Donovan Diaz)–whose real counterpart was in the opening night audience—recounts his troubled youth, how a teacher at a special school saved him by giving him a camera, and how his family kept being forced to move due to gentrification. The first act ends with his diatribe against the injustices he and those like him have suffered.
Act 2 begins with Tony Quintana (Mike Oquendo), the one-time owner of the club and host of the popular 1960s Chicago radio show, “Tony’s Latin A-Go-Go,” explaining how he went from nothing to stardom, a journey plagued by prejudice. He gives lots of advice born of bad experiences. He then introduces Myrna (Cruz Gonzalez-Cadel), the Puerto Rican beauty contest winner whose victory is followed by some truly harrowing racist encounters.
The tone switches again for the final monologue featuring Marvin Quijada as Carpacho, accompanied on bass by the real Carpacho as he regales us with his misadventures at various jobs in New York (with immigration authorities always on his heels), followed by his move to Chicago and gradual success in the music business. Full of good humor and joy for a profession he obviously loves, it’s my favorite—though Maria’s is a close second because it’s so touching and beautifully told by Ortiz.
One problem Delgado has is common with oral histories, real or fictional. Once she decided to let each character tell his or her whole story, rather than interweaving their accounts as organized around themes, she needed to do a sharper job of editing to maintain our interest. For me, the Puerto Ricans are the least fully engaging, because they all end up railing against wrongs done them and lecturing us on how things should be. They may very well have right on their side, but this gets rather tedious and seems out of keeping with the rest of the evening and what Delgado seemingly wants to accomplish.
Her moral comes at the end in her character’s evocation of the layers of history beneath our feet. It’s a little too quasi-mystical for me, as is the show’s opening for that matter, but I sort of see what she’s getting at. Then, again, if Delgado had written “La Havana Madrid” just to show off her talent as a singer with a hot Caribbean band, it would have been fine with me. I could have listened—and maybe even danced—all night.