Shake those hips and roll those shoulders loose. Viva Peru! Vicky Leyva, a.k.a. “The Mulatta Flower of Peru,” dances barefoot, sings folklore straight from an impassioned heart and lights up the stage with bravura alongside her singing and dancing daughters Vanessa Diaz and Susan Duston. Together they represent a revolution.
Hardly a fiesta of fun and games, Canto Al Peru Negro (Songs for Black Peru), a world premiere by Gabriel Garcia, takes us into the hypnotic cool of Afro-Peruvian jazz that’s more than entertainment. These songs carry a message born of pain and joy. Directed by Hugo Medrano, with musical direction by Yuri Juarez, and choreography by Aramis Pazos-Barrera, each number builds to a climax to celebrate survival at the end.
When the Indigenous Girl (Anabel Marcano) speaks Quechua, a local Peruvian dialect, to a fresh-off-the-boat African slave (Jose Manuel Ozuna-Baez), who speaks Congolese, he doesn’t understand. But by striking stones into a rhythmic call and answer, they communicate. As the boy is pulled away, he leaves his stones and the rhythmic beat with the girl who begins to recite poetry. It’s an exquisite moment.
Known as both a GALA director (Los Paredes, 2007) and an Emmy winning documentary film maker, Garcia exposes the gross injustices inflicted on people of dark pigmentation, and their loss of personal identity. As a playwright, he draws upon an incredibly deep, limitless folklore, suggested by a mystifying, suction-cupped black hole projected on the Act I backdrop behind gauzy scrim panels. (A beautifully effective set designed by Mariana Fernandez).
Garcia dips into poetic dialogue to convey that the characters are archetypal and larger than life to represent a fusion of Western African cultures, from the Congo to Angola. For example, actor Bienvenido Martinez, an Ensemble member who is identified as Bienvenido, talks through surreal images about the agony of the Middle Passage: “Here mournful wolves sing to the moon and bonfires burn green./Memories of those who died in passage and were thrown overboard/visit every night,/…” The surviving slaves are the ones the Spanish invaders brought to Peru to work the sugar cane fields and coal mines in the 1520s.
But it’s the Songs themselves that move the story forward, like “Black Lament” (Lamento Negro) by Guillermo Galvez Ronceros, that captures the slaves’ homesickness and despair. Fearing revolt, the Overseer (Javier Teran) banned drums, believed to have occult power, in an attempt to regulate slave music. So the slaves stamped the ground in tap dances without music and invented their own instruments, like the Peruvian Cajones from wooden shipping crates and gourd drums, as depicted in the Legend of the Chacomba. A slave, named Ndotolu which translates as “he who transforms,” didn’t steal the roadside “pumpkin” or squash; he “borrowed” it. Then he hollowed it out and made it his own. Not mentioned in the program: the Chacomba used in Canto Al Peru is real, on loan from the Museo Afroperuano de Zana-Chiclayo in Lima, Peru.
When the scene shifts from the 1800s to present day, Act II jumps with life. As this musical trip culminates, we hear from a full-blown six-musician combo, how Afro-Peruvian Jazz has updated. The cajones of crude fruit crates now have become the “big box” Peruvian Cajones, high quality wooden drums with an “exit hole” for sound at the back. But you can still hear the exotic buzzing-bee sound of the original Quijada, the scraping of the loosened teeth in a donkey’s jawbone, that sounds like a chilling whip accompaniment for “No Valentin,” led by Vanessa Diaz, that echoes with the refrain “….a whack won’t work, Valentin,” by Jose “Pepe Vasquez.
One embittered, hilarious highpoint must be mentioned about the black girl trying to pass for white: “Como Has Cambiado, Pelona?” by the famous Peruvian poet Nicomedes Santa Cruz. “How You’ve Changed, Shaggy Girl?,” is an outrageous flaunting that ridicules the worship of upper class, white society. “What! You powder your face?/Excuse me if I grin/What do you use your Grace?”
“Maria Lando” by Cesar Calvo and Chabuca Granda about the broken-spirited Maria who suffers from “self-marginalization” by constantly working for others is belted out like repetitive scat singing by Susan Duston. It’s a cry for freedom from self-enslavement. Freedom for Afro-Peruvian slaves came with President Ramon Castilla in 1856, eight years before America’s Emancipation Proclamation in 1864. But, ironically, liberation in Peru led to subtler forms of oppression, abuse, exclusion and psychological pain that still hold people back in poverty.
This is rich material. The Afro-Peruvian style becomes recognizable as melodies that jag and transfuse Latino jazz with dissonance and off-tempo syncopations. In the celebrative piece “Fiesta Negra” (“Black Party”) by Leandro Reyes, the energized eight-actor ensemble cuts loose with stamping bare feet, wildly gyrating hips and waving handkerchiefs. Yet at the same time, you can see the partners dancing the puritanical Zamacueca-style, in which the male dancer persistently tries to get as close as he dares to his female partner without touching her. It’s wild and beautiful.
The frame story creaks now and then. A disconnect and preachy, didactic moments occur between some of the songs that don’t quite transition into each other. But who cares? Vicky Leyva is passing on heritage to her daughters. We see history in motion. And daughters Vanessa and Susan, with great confidence and fast-paced footwork, carry to the next generation these amazing songs about toughing-it-out.
Leyva asserts that Latina women have more rights today and wraps up with the last word: “I wonder who’d dare insult me now for being black…when we’re the purest race in the world.” It’s dialogue to wait for because it carries so much power. African jazz is everywhere. And there’s a common denominator here that fits with what is happening. In 2009, the Peruvian government officially apologized to their Afro-Peruvian people for centuries of discrimination.
And this year 2011 is marked as the United Nations’ International Year of Peoples of African Descent, an effort to eliminate racism worldwide and promote greater respect for their cultural heritage.
How are those ideas performed? Audience members are invited on stage as part of the foot-stamping (zapateado) finale, a scintillating send-up of the formalized, stiff dances of a century ago. Go and have a good time.
In Spanish with English surtitles.
Canto Al Peru Negro (Song for Black Peru)
By Gabriel Garcia
Directed by Hugo Medrano
Produced by GALA Hispanic Theatre at Tivoli Square
Reviewed by Rosalind Lacy
Running Time: About two hours with one 15 minute intermission.
Doug Rule . MetroWeekly