“Made in Puerto Rico” Feels Like Home
It has been over a decade since I last visited the Puerto Rican Traveling Theater Company. The off‑Broadway house, which is located in the heart of Manhattan’s theater district, seats about two hundred patrons and has a small art gallery upstairs. Somehow this intimate venue feels like the perfect home for Elizardi Castro’s sold‑out run of “Made in Puerto Rico.” Sitting in the audience feels like a homecoming of sorts. A vendor walks through the aisles of the theater selling t‑shirts, and the ushers collect raffle tickets at the back of the house for a drawing that will happen after the performance. Onstage a wooden carving of the map of Puerto Rico hangs in midair, and the side walls of the stage are bathed in red, white and blue light. The pre‑show soundtrack consists of a mélange of salsa and merengue music, mixed with the friendly conversations of the show’s patrons. The show opens with writer and performer Elizardi Castro dancing onto the stage, as the enthusiastic crowd claps along to the syncopated rhythms of his fancy footwork. He tells the story of his family’s move from Puerto Rico to the United States, when he was ripped” from his homeland at nine years old. Upon arrival, his parents settle the family in New York, but not in one of the more glamorized boroughs like Manhattan, Brooklyn, or the Bronx (he pronounces the X silently). Instead they decide to live in White Plains, NY, which, for the young Elizardi, feels as far away as the North Pole, only colder. Instead of curtains, his family hangs the Puerto Rican flag in the window to say, “We’ve arrived.” His elementary school is an even bigger culture shock because he doesn’t speak English. The few words he does know are from a rhyming song he learned back in Puerto Rico: chicken, hen, pencil, pen, window, teacher, door, and floor. During morning roll call, the teacher calls out for “Elizabeth” Castro, and he looks around the classroom thinking that he might have a relative, before he realizes she is talking to him. The food from the school’s cafeteria is equally foreign; he can’t seem to pronounce “hot dog” even when a girl in his class chokes on one, and he tries to alert the teacher. In this unfortunate incident, his classmate is given the Heimlich maneuver and the mangled hot dog lands on his plate. This series of miscommunications plays well with Mr. Castro’s avid storytelling and perfect comic timing, and I found myself laughing hysterically at his anecdotes. Fifteen minutes into the show, an entire row of latecomers tried to discreetly file into their seats; however, when Mr. Castro saw them he stopped the show cold. “Ah, my people,” he said teasingly. “Don’t worry, we’ll wait.” There were a few other spontaneous moments like this on the night I attended. At one point a man in the front row stood up to stretch his legs, to which Mr. Castro commented, “Only in my show.” Audience members also shouted commentary from their seats in the middle of his stories. The artist, not missing a beat, incorporated their feedback into his patter. He has a unique way of connecting with his audience and making them truly feel as if they are a part of the show. This is just one of his many gifts. Mr. Castro also shares some of the region’s folklore, describing the fate of the coquí, a frog native only to Puerto Rico, whose fate is death once the creature leaves the country’s environs. Another story he shares is that of the mythical Chupacabra, which literally translates to “goat‑sucker.” He believes that the urban legend of the Chupacabra rivals that of its American counterpart, Bigfoot. “Seriously, the Chupacabra’s got mad skills, it kills goats. What has Bigfoot ever done?” There were moments during the show when the actor spoke passages entirely in Spanish, and although I am not bilingual I was still able to follow along. Mr. Castro’s mastery of inflections and physical comedy heightens his storytelling in any language. Throughout the show the actor compares and contrasts his Puerto Rican and American influences, as he tries to fit into the framework of both cultures without losing sight of his identity. One of the most important strengths he credits to his Puerto Rican heritage is his ability to adapt and adjust. “Made in Puerto Rico” is a celebration of all things Puerto Rican: the music, the language, the food, and the culture. And then there’s the dancing. During his teenage years, Mr. Castro’s dream was to become a member of the popular boy band Menudo, so he lip‑syncs and dances “full out” to their fast‑paced choreography. However, his parents’ dream is for their son to become a lawyer, which he does. On the morning of Elizardi Castro’s graduation from law school, fifty of his closest relatives fill the back two rows, holding up a large Puerto Rican flag. The announcer calls out the name “Elizabeth” Castro and his family cheers proudly, because his law degree makes them all lawyers. Elizardi Castro’s show, “Made in Puerto Rico,” does a beautiful job of reminding us that we are all the proud representatives of our culture, our community, and most importantly, our family. “We are loud. We are proud. And we are here.” “Made in Puerto Rico” Written and performed by Elizardi Castro Directed by Candido Tirado March 7 – April 21, 2019 Photo credit courtesy of the production The Puerto Rican Traveling Theater Company 304 W 47th St New York City
KIA STANDARD is a writer and musical theater performer, who has appeared in regional and international productions of “West Side Story,” “The King and I”, “Little Shop of Horrors,” and “Bubbling Brown Sugar.” She received an MA in Creative Writing/Nonfiction from The Johns Hopkins University, and has published articles and profiles for various talent magazines. Ms. Standard is currently working as a musical playwright.