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As I’ve previously said, one of the great things about having such a lively theater scene is the fact that there are new works premiering all over town every weekend.  Some of them may be boring, formulaic reflections on twentysomething self-absorption, but many, many of them give us interesting glimpses into new, intriguing worlds.  Two of the plays currently onstage in the city tackle the volatile, complicated topic of cultural identity, something, as an immigrant, I am particularly keen on. After the triumphant success of the brilliant, Pulitzer-nominated, off-Broadway transferring The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, my choice for best production of 2009, the hot, young playwright Kristoffer Diaz is back with a world premiere at the American Theater Company of a play that he actually wrote before Chad Deity, Welcome to Arroyo’s, mixing a heady brew of Latino identity politics, doctoral dissertations, sushi-eating, graffiti-making, and hiphop.  Over at Chicago Dramatists, arguably the best incubator of new work in the city, Will Cooper, a new playwright, is having the first professional production of his works in Jade Heart, a world premiere about international adoption and the tension between keeping true to one’s cultural roots and assimilation.  I love strongly advocating for new work; however, I can only recommend Welcome to Arroyo’s with reservations, since, although it confirms for me Diaz’s brilliance and future greatness, and his exceptional ability to crisply capture the 21st century zeitgeist, it lacks the clarity and audience engagement of Chad Deity.   On the other hand, as an Asian, I struggled mightily with Jade Heart- although I think its intentions are noble, it is so simplistically-written and so old-fashioned in its worldview, Cooper might as well have been writing about cultural identity concerns in 1980 versus 2010.

There’s a whole lot of stuff going on at Arroyo’s.  There is bar owner Alejandro’s (a low-key Joe Minoso) ambition to make Arroyo’s, a bar in the Lower East Side of New York City, the neighborhood watering hole of choice, a place that strengthens the bonds of community among the neighborhood’s predominantly Latino immigrant population.  Then there are his two DJs (the riveting Jackson Doran and GQ) who function as a hiphopping Greek chorus, commenting on the action and providing back stories, who keep the play alive when they’re onstage (which unfortunately isn’t as much as the other characters).  There’s Alejandro’s angry, artistic, 18 year old sister, Amalia (a needing-to-tone-it-down Christina Nieves) whose primary form of self-expression is spray-painting graffiti repetitively on one police station wall (which begs the question, aren’t there other walls in New York City to spray-paint graffiti on?  It’s a big place!).  There’s the police officer (a cool Edgar Miguel Sanchez) who doesn’t seem to have any other job except repetitively washing out Amalia’s “art”.  Finally, there’s Lelly (the always interesting Sadieh Rafai), a Latina whose family left the neighborhood years back and has assimilated themselves quite well in the Upper East Side’s affluent WASP-ishness, trying to reclaim her cultural roots by writing a dissertation on a mysterious Hispanic female hiphop forerunner from the 1970s who suddenly disappeared from view, possibly Alejandro and Amalia’s dead mother.

Diaz is writing about so many things, that the play sometimes feels pretty overstuffed at some points, and lacking in cohesion in others.  He makes some trenchant points about assimilation, the relationship between a mother and her children, and an artist’s commitment to his or her art.  The dialogue and the hiphop lyrics are biting and insightful, similar to Chad Deity.  I’m not really sure, though, what the whole romance between Amalia and the police officer is supposed to be about; and it also strains credulity because Nieves plays Amalia in such a grating, unsympathetic manner that you wonder why Sanchez’s laidback nice guy would be drawn to her (after being punched twice to boot).  Lelly’s storyline starts promisingly, and Rafai is such a thoughtful, committed actress that you’re really drawn to the ambivalence she demonstrates with regards to her Hispanic roots, but it gets lost in argument after argument with Alejandro on whether Reina Rey, the topic of her dissertation, was really his mother.  The whole Greek chorus device of the hiphopping DJs, which starts the play off with a bang, is so electric and audience-friendly that once they disappear from view, your attention wanders off as well (a great tribute to Doran and GQ’s skill and chemistry).  And for Alejandro’s talk about the bar being a touchpoint for the Latino community, you never get a full sense of his own experiences within that community and how it has shaped him.  I think Diaz and director Jaime Castaneda should be commended for giving us a glimpse into a very particular community; I just wished Welcome to Arroyo’s pulled together better for the audience.

I think there is a lack of this specificity, as well as multi-dimensionality, in Will Cooper’s Jade Heart, about a single woman who adopts a baby from China, and the girl’s struggles, growing up, in balancing her Asian cultural roots with her American lifestyle and milieu.  Frankly, the play feels like a broadly-sketched Lifetime movie.  I have friends and family members who have adopted children from China as well as from other Asian countries, and none of them, I think, will recognize themselves in the single mother, Brenda, who is constantly, virulently haranguing Jade, her adopted daughter, to “stop being Chinese” and to “act like an American.”  I don’t think any smart person would, in this day and age of  numerous cross-border, cross-cultural interactions. I find it inconsistent as well for Brenda to be constantly summoning up this cultural hostility and then she agrees to go with a teenage Jade on a tour of China with other girls who were also adopted and their parents.  Unfortunately, Ginger Lee McDermott’s one-tone performance doesn’t provide the possible shadings that Cooper’s writing lacks.  The capable actress Christine Bunuan as Jade tries to make the most of a paper-thin character, which is also inconsistently written.  In my experience as an Asian in a predominantly non-Asian community, the sense of differentiation begins with the physical:  I don’t look like many of the people I know.  I think it’s surprising then that Jade’s recognition of this fact comes in the final ten minutes of the play, after all other business about pitting her Asian identity with her American identity, sketched out in broad terms, have transpired.  I also don’t fully buy into Jade’s struggles and dilemmas throughout her adolescence and early adulthood since the narration, which is a key dramaturgical element in this play, as written, and as performed by Bunuan, is so affable and, almost clinical, in its recounting of the episodes in Jade’s life.  I’m looking for the passion, the confusion, and, yes, the rage that someone feels when traversing cross-cultures.  I like Cooper’s use of stylized scenes set in China as Jade searches, both physically and metaphorically, for her roots.  Unfortunately Artistic Director Russ Tutterow stages these scenes like a cross between a low-rent Peking Opera performance and Big Trouble in Little China (a gong to start every scene, really?  I thought I was at a Mongolian barbecue restaurant.)

Welcome to Arroyo’s is at American Theater Company, 1909 W. Byron St., until May 16.   Jade Heart runs a little longer, it’s at Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago Ave., until May 30.

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