Review: Call Me Boricua!

Last Thursday evening , I attended an extremely intimate performance of the Phoenix Theatre’s latest offering. In their downstairs cabaret space, the Phoenix Theatre of Indianapolis downtown hosts Ricardo Melendez’s original one man play Call Me Boricua! The first in a four day play watching marathon for me (Footloose at Beef and Boards, Pretty Fire at the Indiana Repertory Theatre and Spring Cleaning at Theatre on the Square), Call Me Boricua! was an impressive and fun culmination of one man’s culture, pride, frustration and search for identity.

Recently seen on stage at the Phoenix Theatre earlier this season in The Most Damaging Wound as the quirky outcast, Ricardo Melendez’s original semi autobiographical script delves deep into the heart of the immigrant experience in the United States. As the Artistic Director of The Workshop Theatre Group in Norfolk , Virginia, Melendez had the opportunity to develop and perform this show prior to bringing it to the Indianapolis theatre scene. As a graduate of the dance program at Butler University, Melendez is no stranger to Indianapolis arts; his return to the Circle City is, in fact, welcome.

With minimal staging elements, Call Me Boricua! (pronounced bore-REE-kwah) shares one man’s journey away from home. As a true “second class citizen” of the United States, the Puerto Rican Melendez presents a play with a mission: to educate the nation (one audience at a time) about our sister to the south Puerto Rico, and, what is more, the persistent nature of ignorance that accompanies the term “melting pot” in America. As Melendez reveals the history of his homeland, coupled with his own experiences living as an immigrant in the United States, a deeper story about the nature of identity is revealed. A native of Puerto Rico, Melendez grapples with his nation’s historic loss of identity, as he searches to define himself. His message is made clear through a series of short stories that weave together the fabric of his life.

Melendez has his audience belly laughing within the first lines of his ninety minute monologue. Through a wonderfully rich combination of dance, music and storytelling, he has the audience on a string that he tugs up and down throughout the course of the show. With the looming idea of his mother (who serves as an invisible pillar of strength and inspiration), Melendez embarks on a journey from innocence to assertive intelligence to exclusion to assimilation to regret, ultimately arriving at his reasons for writing and performing this play in the first place.

His performance manages to forge what feels like a real connection to his audience, a task not easily accomplished with only the handful of audience members in Phoenix Theatre’s Cabaret space last Thursday. His success engaging and connecting to such a meager audience (in numbers only) makes it apparent that Melendez has true talent. His performance would only get better with larger crowds giving more energy to feed from. Yet come to think of it, if only one person had shown up for the show, I’m positive Melendez still would have been on point from beginning to end.

His talent stems from his honesty. The task of laying a life on the line, opening up personal experience for discussion, and subsequently commenting on the nature of American society through the eyes of an outsider takes guts, which Melendez has in abundance. Yet he approaches this immense task with honesty and humor, constantly putting his audience at ease. Tackling a range of subjects helps Melendez to paint with many different colors. In the end, we are left with a rich image of the man who is both actor and playwright, revealing great talent.

The structure of his script, though written in prose, is poetic in many ways. With traditional Puerto Rican songs as book ends to the script, Melendez introduces the importance of music and dance to his native culture. Opening the play with a touching monologue about his mother’s farewell when he first embarked to New York City at the young age of 17, he creates a lasting theme of the unbreakable bond between mother and son. This theme continues to color many of his choices throughout the play. In one instant, Melendez’s writing slings hilarious one liners with an elbow nudge, and in the very next moment lands a line that cuts deep to the heart of a serious matter. He takes no prisoners as he denounces members of American culture who “abuse their freedom to succeed without regard to humanity.” His ability to share both humor and truth reveal the innateness of the human experience regardless of race.

My explanation unfairly portrays Call Me Boricua! as heavy. In fact, Melendez’s script accomplishes his weighty discussion, as he keeps his audience laughing throughout. It is as if he encloses them in the inner circle of his pains and triumphs. We laugh and cry with his character. When he shares his first hilarious sexual experience as a young eighth grader with a busty blond from Fort Wayne, Indiana, we draw on similarities from our own life. And in an intelligent move, we continue to draw on similarities from our own lives (as either excluded or excluder) when his college girlfriend hides him from her bigoted family during parents week. Melendez creates a wonderfully double edged sword that cuts the heart of each audience member’s personal experiences in relation to his own.

Melendez is bubbly, funny, intelligent and calculated in his performance, never preaching but always teaching. Melendez accomplishes the amazing task of wearing many different hats: philosopher, actor, spoken word poet, playwright and cultural ambassador. Don’t miss his show at the Phoenix Theatre on Mass Ave now through February 21. Tickets are $15.00 on Thursdays and Sundays and $20.00 on Fridays and Saturdays. For additional information about Call Me Boricua! visit the Phoenix Theatre’s official website.

Check out the great Indianapolis restaurants and Indianapolis bars in the Indianapolis cultural district, Mass Ave. Make your outing in Indy complete with dinner and drinks after the show! Try Agio’s Italian Restaurant, Bazbeuax’s Pizza, the Rathskeller Restaurant or Scholars Inn for some close and tasty cuisine.

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Call Me Boricua
Through February 21, 2010

The Phoenix Theatre
749 North Park Avenue
Indianapolis, IN 46202