In his program note, Company of Angels’ (CoA) artistic director Armando Molina explained how the world premiere of a Chicana-authored, award-winning play like blu precisely suited CoA and its mission to produce theatre that portrays “the 80 percent” of Los Angeles residents who rarely see themselves represented onstage. He reminded his audience that the underrepresented Latina/o world of blu theatrically adumbrates barrios like Boyle Heights, the 98 percent Latina/o-populated neighborhood located just across the river from CoA’s downtown Los Angeles location. Boyle Heights has a 60 percent high school dropout rate, along with a median annual income of $24,000—disturbing statistics that also describe barrios throughout the United States. Garnering the 2010 Yale Drama Series Award, Virginia Grise’s blu is a deeply political play that focuses on the ramifications of such harrowing figures, especially for youth, by dramatizing two generations of a Mexican American family within a fictionalized “Barrio U.S.A.” blu’s title not only eponymously names the family’s eldest teenage son (played by Xavi Moreno), whose birth, life, and death (while serving as a soldier in Iraq) the play tracks, but it also announces the centrality of spiritual despair in its characters’ lives. Working through the dramaturgical schema of a fragmented memory play and relying on ensemble storytelling, blu is an absorbing mediation of “memories, dreams, rituals, and prayers” that illustrates the interplay between macro-level sociopolitical conditions in the barrio and micro-level adaptations by its Latina/o residents.
Director Laurie Carlos’s staging placed emphasis on the play’s lean, poetically metered language and its ensemble-storytelling style—its most arresting element. To this end, CoA’s intimate black-box theatre held a bare minimum of set pieces to suggest blu’s barrio: a sacred tree, a column tagged with graffiti, a prison cell occupied by the family’s father Eme (pronounced ɛm-ɛ, also the name of one of the most notorious prison gangs in the California penal system) (Luis Galindo), a tiny house tumbled onto its side to signify the family’s home, and a separate pitched-roof unit (sans house) set on the stage floor that served as a liminal space between street and sky where blu’s younger sister Gemini (Alexandra Jimenez) perched during much of the play in order to better scan the stars or search the horizon. The set’s stark, open quality thoughtfully upended overdetermined “gritty” representations of the barrio, and instead offered a surrealistic landscape that lent itself to the play’s central motif of dreaming, positioned as an act of resistance against the barrio’s tribulations.
blu often made use of plural-vocal dialogic exchanges among characters, an ensemble-based narrative technique that heightened the play’s theatricality and positioned it firmly away from realism, as characters spoke across time and among different spaces to describe their circumstances. In performance, these plural-vocal exchanges delivered a poetically charged choral effect that evocatively distributed the narrative task of storytelling among different sets of characters. For example, when blu and his younger brother Lunatico (Phillip Garcia) recounted the violent initiation rite of being “jumped into a gang,” they began with a shared account that quickly cut back and forth between them. Then Eme joined his sons by adding his memory of gang initiation to their visceral reenactment. Shared narration of this kind allowed the play to trace out the [End Page 412] pervasiveness of violence across two generations of men, and among three perspectives. Carlos’s staging enhanced blu’s plural-vocal narrative structure with nonnaturalistic, highly physical movement—in effect, powerful dances among characters that drew from expressionistic movement vocabularies, as well as sources like hip-hop. In scenes between father and sons, for example, this stylized physicality effectively upbraided the shopworn gestures of Latino male bravado and “gangbangers” with fresh grammars of masculine physicality and homosocial intimacy and proved to be some of Carlos’s most luminous staging.
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