By Byrne Harrison
Art is a product of its time, and for many artists, now is a particularly difficult one. In the era of Trump values, artists, especially those from traditionally marginalized groups, are responding with a message of hope and a reminder that things can and will someday get better.
Playwright Mark-Eugene Garcia draws on his Latinx background (while also acknowledging his non-Spanish speaking suburban upbringing) in his "Eight Tales of Pedro." Based on the folk tales of Pedro Urdamales and Juan Bobo, Garcia creates a play that emphasizes the commonality of those of Latinx heritage, even though each nation has a slightly different version of Pedro and his stories, and the resilience of those facing terrible obstacles.
"Eight Tales of Pedro" is built around a framing device of a group of people being deported to Mexico. To pass the time and keep their spirits up, they take turns telling the tales of Pedro and Juan, each tale shedding a little light on the lives of people acting out the stories, while entertaining their fellow travelers. Drawing on a framework familiar to those who've read The Canterbury Tales or One Thousand and One Nights, the stories are humorous and poignant, while touching on a variety of topics, especially, as one would expect, that of racism and the value of people who are different.
Ably directed on a nearly bare stage by Rodrigo Bolaños, the play lets the actors shine, as they bring to life both their characters and those in the Pedro and Juan Bobo tales. Of particular note are Germainne Lebron, who takes on the crafty Pedro, and Stephen Santana, who plays the naive Juan Bobo. The rest of the cast is outstanding, and features Kat Peña, Richard E. Calvache, Laura Aguinaga and Federico Mallet. The play also features live music performed by Luis D'Elias, a perfect complement to the show.
David Lawson's latest one-man show, "Nazis and Me," also deals with Trump and the normalization of racism, sexism, homophobia, etc., in the current climate. Drawing on his experiences dealing with antisemitism as a youth (including bomb threats and vandalism at his local JCC) to his more recent attacks from incels, the alt-right, and random bigots who find him through online media, Lawson's show doesn't let us off the hook by saying that the past was so much better than today, but shows that while the far-right rage may be bubbling to the surface, it has always been there. Given the subject matter, Lawson's show could have been a heavy political screed, but he is a deft writer and performer, who above all else, manages to find the humor in even the darkest situations.
"Eight Tales of Pedro" ends with some uncertainty, as the characters, buoyed by the tales of Pedro and Juan Bobo, still face a future that they can't imagine in a country that for some of them has never been home, "Nazis and Me" ends with an uplifting wedding with guests who under the current climate are being told to hate each other, but instead find a common humanity that brings them together. But in both cases, the playwrights are making an appeal to us to find the things that bring us together, and to remember them when the struggle seems to be too much.
"Eight Tales of Pedro" runs through October 14 at The Secret Theatre, 44-02 23rd Street, Long Island City.
“Nazis and Me” will be performed October 16, November 6, and November 13, 2018 at Under St. Marks Theatre, 94 St. Marks Place.