Chicago Theatre Review
Teatro’s ‘La Havana Madrid’ a marvelous embrace of Latino culture
La Havana Madrid – Teatro Vista
Last year, I attended the opening of Theater Wit’s production of ‘Naperville,’ and before the show began, Jeremy Wechsler – the show’s director and the theater’s artistic executive director – stated that Chicago’s theater landscape is “the envy of the nation.” The audience members universally nodded their heads, and it’s easy to see why: from imaginative shows at The Goodman to the stunning student-led productions at The Yard, Chicago’s theater community is a true embarrassment of riches, and anyone with the time and resources to explore it is a truly privileged individual.
Yet even amongst that wide climate of talent and ambition, there are the occasional plays that rise above the rest, the proverbial cream of the rich, milky crop. Teatro Vista’s 2016-2017 season has offered a number of shows with that distinction, and its latest, the world-premiere production of Sandra Delgado’s ‘La Havana Madrid,’ may very well be the best thing the company has yet produced.
A multifaceted work that explores the many roots of Chicago’s Latino community, ‘La Havana Madrid’ is a flawlessly timed embrace of the richness, diversity, and generosity of Latino culture – a gorgeously realized rebuke to the fear, scapegoating, and propaganda that has all-but defined America’s Latino communities since the rise of Donald Trump. Basing her writing on historical research and interviews with luminaries of the community, Delgado – and director Cheryl Lynn Bruce, the legendary actress – has done for Latino culture what Marcus Gardley did for Black culture with “The House That Will Not Stand,” in that she has crafted a true honor to her roots amidst these uncertain times.
Eschewing one main narrative for a series of vignettes, ‘La Havana Madrid’ centers its action on the La Havana Madrid nightclub, a hotspot of Caribbean culture that was, in the ’60s and ’70s, a top area for Latinos throughout Chicago’s North Side. Delgado plays a ‘Cabaret’-esque MC who guides the action through music (she is backed by a terrific musical ensemble), and Teatro’s wonderfully talented cast then takes turns telling their unique stories of how they immigrated to Chicago, their impressions of the city’s cultural and political landscape, and of course, how they stay true to their roots while embracing this new, strange land. And thanks to Ashley Ann Woods’ spot-on scenic design, the staging, seats, and ambience are all perfectly on cue with an old nightclub.
Delgado’s stories run the gamut: from Columbia, we hear two stories – the unbearably sweet love story of Maruja (talented newcomer Phoebe González) and Henry (ensemble member Tommy Rivera-Vega, who was outstanding in Teatro’s ‘Parachute Men’), and the soaring narrative of Carpacho (the charismatic Marvin Quijada), a bassist who balances his music aspirations with working in factories and avoiding immigration services; from Cuba, we learn about teenage Maria (the enormously likable Krystal Ortiz), who struggles with a conservative foster family while delighting in The Beatles; and in perhaps my favorite narrative of all, the volcanic Donovan Diaz tells the story of Carlos, a Puerto Rican immigrant who is radicalized by Chicago’s deeply racist institutions. With few exceptions, Delgado’s narratives are one-person shows, direct addresses the audience with carefully timed musical/visual backing, and it’s the ultimate testament to her writing, Bruce’s direction, and the cast’s instincts that one remains enthralled every step of the way.
And the music! Between Delgado’s singing and the dancing that punctuates every vignette, there is an endless life coursing through ‘La Havana Madrid,’ a contagious joy at life and a refusal to accept the status quo. These are quietly revolutionary works, ultimately – works of art that rebuke political correctness, rebuke cultural leveling, rebuke the forces of bigotry that always threaten to take hold in diverse areas. These are the stories that truly make America great, and given that the original run of ‘La Havana Madrid’ is completely sold out – even after it was extended for another week – it’s clear that many, many people recognize that greatness.
Reviewed by Peter Thomas Ricci
Presented through May 28 by Teatro Vista atSteppenwolf’s 1700 Theatre, 1700 N. Halsted, Chicago
Tickets are available by calling 312-335-1650, or by visiting TeatroVista.org