Profile Theatre’s production of Welcome to Arroyo’s, which opened last weekend at Imago Theatre and continues through Feb. 26, honors and embodies the spirit of its subject in every conceivable way. The play’s world of outsiders will resonate most for people who are the least likely to feel welcome in a theater. It welcomes other theatergoers into a world they may not understand well. And the production itself welcomes artists into the cast who bring a lived-in understanding of the world of the show. This is theater produced with a practice of solidarity and welcome.
Kristoffer Diaz’s play–written when he was still a student–centers on two young siblings, Alejandro and Molly (Jonathan Hernandez and Elvia Reed), who are both struggling with the sudden loss of their mother. Older brother Alejandro pours his energy into tending and cleaning the bar he has opened in place of the bodega their mother ran in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, while 18-year-old Molly channels her furious energy into covering the city’s walls with her graffiti, including the back wall of the local police station. But the bar hasn’t found a community of patrons, and Molly’s urge to fight courts peril.
Hip hop and graffiti are important vehicles for the story Diaz wants to tell. Born in the late ’70s, he has noted that his own growing up paralleled the rise of hip hop, an art form created by young people in the South Bronx who resourcefully found new ways to express themselves despite disenfranchisement and limited resources. While predominantly a Black cultural expression, as Diaz has acknowledged, hip hop “was shaped and guided by the inextricable presence of Nuyoricans” [New York Puerto Ricans] of every color at every step of its development. Hip hop’s movement toward the mainstream in the ensuing decades since it sprang almost literally out of concrete holds some interesting parallels for someone like Diaz (and so many other Black and brown people) who have worked to find a footing in a culture that continues to marginalize our home communities. What does one lose by succeeding? How does one hold onto an authentic voice?
Some of those struggles manifest in the Latiné characters in this play, which is set in 2004, more than two decades into the evolution of hip hop. Where does Alejandro’s conception of a neighborhood gathering place fit into his gentrifying neighborhood in the Lower East Side? Where can Molly create what she wants to express through her graffiti? And what about the cute Latino cop who locks eyes with Molly as he is apprehending her–what worlds is he straddling? Or Lelly, the young Puerto Rican college student who has attained enough privilege that she reads white to the other characters, but who is fighting for connections to her origins as a Boricua–a person from Puerto Rico by birth or descent? How does she carry out her quest to identify an early mother of hip hop whom she connects to Alejandro and Molly?
Welcome to Arroyo’s offers us multiple entry points into the struggles of these characters, aided by two MCs who function as a chorus, narrating the action and sometimes rewinding and splicing and remixing it too. Diaz injects a note of experimentation into the storytelling that feels organic to the material, and offers young artists some room to find their rhythm on stage.
Profile has built this production in that same spirit. Director Bobby Bermea (a frequent Oregon ArtsWatch contributor who has also delighted audiences with on-stage performances in Portland and elsewhere for many years) has clearly nurtured the playful energy of his young performers. The cast includes two local hip hop artists as the MCs for whom this mode of performance is new: Ben Johnson (who performs elsewhere as Milc) and Anthony Parrish (otherwise known as Old Grape God). And the set features original art by graffiti artist and muralist Manuel Villagran.
I hope audiences will accept the invitation extended by all of these artists to enter into a space whose language and parameters reflect the originality and energy of outsiders. It’s a wonderful opportunity to listen, overhear, and vibe with curiosity and love.