Hard truths collide with hearty laughs at the world premiere of Gabriel Diego Hernández’s “Quarter Rican,” which runs at Mile Square Theatre in Hoboken through March 26.
Developed in association with Pregones/Puerto Rican Traveling Theater in New York, “Quarter Rican” upends almost all expectations. Two of its three characters represent manifestations of the main character’s personality. It’s a musical without any live instruments. And it’s a laugh-out-loud comedy that tackles serious issues such as gentrification, ethnic identity and the extent to which parents can change who their children grow up to be.
It also may be the most Hoboken-centric production in Mile Square Theatre’s history — a play written by a Hoboken native about a Hobokenite struggling to decide if he wants to raise his son there.
Author Gabriel Diego Hernández plays Danny Rodriguez, a young man who has seen the Puerto Rican neighborhood of his youth disappear. Like Hernández, Danny was raised by a Boriqueño father and a white mother and then left Hoboken, earned a B.A. and master’s degree at Yale University, married a Jewish girl, established himself financially and returned to the Mile Square City (albeit in much cushier surroundings) to raise his infant son, Adrian (the play’s titular “quarter rican”).
Broderick Clavery shares the stage as MC Plátano, Danny’s imaginary alter ego (based on the stage persona he adopted as an aspiring Latin hip-hop artist). Dark-skinned, gender-fluid and extravagantly dressed in brightly colored jewelry and a skirt, MC Plátano represents the ethnic side of Danny’s personality that he struggles to retain. The two trade barbs, insights, questions, memories and songs as Danny wrestles with the idea that Adrian may not identify at all with being Puerto Rican.
Arabelle Luke (aka AirLoom Beats) plays DJ Quenepa, who stands in a brightly lit DJ booth and expertly beatboxes, emcees and harmonizes while Danny wrestles (and sings) with his conscience.
Hernández, dressed casually in a Yankees jersey and cap, has an effortless charm about him; his performance makes us want to like this guy even before we’ve come to know much about him. If Hernández is upstaged a bit by Clavery, that is only because the latter’s sassy queerness and extravagant appearance make him a bit larger than life. But it is Danny’s (and Hernández’s) humanity that we explore throughout the one-act production’s 85 minutes.
The humor is rich and earthy, poking good-natured fun at foibles and stereotypes (and delivering some big jokes in Spanish). At one point, Danny apologizes for calling himself DJ Plátano, saying he never would have done so had he known that plantains were considered sacred objects by Dominicans. And when his wife asks his grandfather if there were any Jews in Puerto Rico, the old man replies, in his heavy Latin accent, “Sure, we had plenty — orange joos, pineapple joos, grapefruit joos …”
The show includes a dozen original songs (co-written by Hernández and Rachel Elmer) that run from comedic and sarcastic to soulful and introspective, as Danny — a stay-at-home dad of sorts – walks his napping son to a playground in a Latin neighborhood. Along the way, he remembers and sings/raps about the stereotypes and subtle prejudices he’s endured in life, like celebrating Thanksgiving with his wife’s family (“Thankstaken”), his racial confusion growing up (“Black (White)”), his panic about Adrian’s ethnicity (“Your Boy’s White,” “Who Will You Be?”) and what he might do to make Adrian identify at least in part with his Puerto Rican heritage (“Put ‘Em in the Kit”).
I won’t spoil what DJ Plátano advises Danny to include in his son’s “Boriqua Kit,” but rest assured the answers reflect wisdom, inclusivity and compassion.
While the show is full of laughter, some of Danny’s memories hurt — like his best friend’s white mom dubbing him “Danny Cerveza” — while others sting our own collective consciousness, as Danny recalls the wave of arson that drove thousands of Latinos from Hoboken’s rent-controlled apartments in the late ’70s and early ’80s. (Dozens of low-income residents died in those fires but no landlord ever was prosecuted.)
At one point, Danny and DJ Plátano even discuss moving to a more Latin neighborhood in nearby “Jersey Shitty,” but Danny’s doppelganger notes that the missus won’t be able to find the sustainable farm-to-market groceries she loves on the shelves of a local CTown.
“Quarter Rican” was workshopped by the Puerto Rican Traveling Theater and comes to Mile Square a finely tuned machine, its three cast members interacting with a fluid, natural grace. It’s the best kind of theater: a play that feels more like a conversation.
Mile Square Theatre will continue its Hoboken-specific season with “Yuppies Invade My House at Dinnertime” by resident playwright Joseph Gallo in late March; and the family-friendly “Balloonacy,” featuring former MST artistic director and longtime Hobokenite Chris O’Connor, in late April.
“Quarter Rican” runs through March 26 at Mile Square Theatre in Hoboken; visit milesquaretheatre.org.
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