What do you get when you cross an Oakland performance poet and a rapper from Cuba? Apparently you get Representa!, Paul S. Flores' and Julio Cárdenas' chronicle of their various encounters over the last decade, or at least of circumstances surrounding them.
After a three-day world premiere run last weekend at La Peña Cultural Center as part of the Hip-Hop Theater Festival (founded by the show's director Danny Hoch), Representa! now moves to the Mission Cultural Center for the San Francisco International Arts Festival, which it also played last year as a work-in-progress.
The story starts when the two first met at the Havana Hip-Hop Festival in 1996 and jumps to their next encounter in October 2001, when Cárdenas' group RCA (Los Raperos Crazy de Alamar) came to New York City as part of the first Cuban hip-hop delegation. The rest is about Cárdenas' hard times as an undocumented immigrant after he decides to stay in the United States, while Flores feels betrayed and wonders what he's up to.
It's a bilingual production, with Cárdenas speaking Spanish (with English supertitles) and Flores favoring English. In the course of the show they wear many hats, hidden behind chairs scattered around the stage. Donning these hats, they play people they meet on the plane or bus to Havana, while trying to find the other at the airport, or in the streets, clubs, and convenience stores of New York.
The amusing array of naive activists, street hustlers, obnoxious tourists, wannabe thug rappers, and self-styled revolutionaries are more broad parodies than transformations. On opening night Cárdenas cracked himself up playing gringa Megan with his thick Cuban accent. Late in the show, when they play each other's characters as voices echoing in their heads, it's mostly a matter of saying the lines.
Although both play themselves, we're given little taste of their work. Any poetry we hear is in character, and there's surprisingly little rapping. The two keep things moving by dancing while they talk, or pacing in a way oddly reminiscent of a vaudeville routine.
Flores and Cárdenas enjoy chronicling the near-misses and mishaps between their meetings, but whenever the two finally get in the same room we don't linger but quickly move on to the next chapter. The connection between them winds up being the least developed, and consequently the least interesting, part of the story. Ultimately the tale of the two artists' convergence, ostensibly the linchpin of the narrative, remains tucked away somewhere between the lines.
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