Last Thursday I had the pleasure of going to see Viva Africa, a musical retelling of William Shakespeare’s Romero and Juliet, that deconstructs present social issues like racial profiling, stereotyping, immigration as well as ethnic cultures and tradition. The Truth Urban Theater Group manages to not only entertain as it seeks to educate the audience on the significance of the immigration narrative as it is what connects us, but has also managed to create a great divide.
Set within an unidentified urban landscape, the story follows Robert Jenkins and Maria Santiago, two teens that fall in love during the fictional Viva Africa Day festivities amidst being separated by the “sacred line” that has divided their community and family for years. The Jenkins family is African American with supporting characters being West Indian/Caribbean (or at least of West Indian/Caribbean descent) as implied in one scene in which the characters wave their respective flags. As for the Santiagos, I don’t recall where the family itself is meant to be from, however, the aforementioned flag scene showed that that the group had members from Mexico, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Colombia and Honduras.What is interesting about this set up is the fact that the argument between both sets of characters doesn’t stem from who can and cannot claim African ancestry, but who can claim Viva Africa Day. While it is stated by one character from the Jenkins’s group that Viva Africa was started by them, it is implied that they are aware of the African influences and ties in Latino culture which allows the Santiagos to celebrate, but only within their side which is marked by a fence and, of course the “sacred line.” As an Afro-Latina, I greatly enjoyed the fact that the Latino characters acknowledge their African roots (without a need for a racial-identity debate). The Santiagos wear bold African prints, just like the Jenkins family and are very much into the festivities of Viva Africa Day to the point that they want to see themselves represented in the Viva Africa Day royal court. This sparks a heated argument that eventually escalates to violence. While I won’t spoil the climax of this tale I will mention that Old Man Jenkins, Robert’s grandfather, even makes the point to say that ethnic divisions were severed in the past with both groups developing a unifying identity as they fought for civil rights that has since been forgotten, thus it is up to the younger generation, Robert and Maria specifically, to help mend that bond. One minor complaint of mine is the decision to make all the actors of the Santiago side to be very light skinned and it is something that is referred as a point of contention between the two groups with the Jenkins group stating that due to their light skin the Santiagos have a sort of “superior view” of themselves. I think that the message being what it is would have made this a great opportunity to show the racial diversity that exists among Latinos, if only to highlight the fact that the term “Latino” doesn’t make reference to an actual race as it actually points to the geographic location of one’s country of origin. Colorism runs rampant in the Latino community and has managed to create even more divisions on top of those that already exist as it holds links to socioeconomic status with white being the preference and the heralded beauty standard and black being deemed inferior and ugly.That said, it is really hard to take something classic like Romero and Juliet and make it relevant to the modern day, but Truth UTG does it well, promoting the need to the dismantle the divisions that continue to exist today among people of color in order to continue moving forward, cemented with a cast invitation to the audience to sing and dance the final musical number with them. While it is a shame that this generation still has to deal with such issues that lead to racial and ethnic divisions due to imaginary drawn lines, it is up to us to make the necessary strides to change it. This play truly leaves an impression whether you are young, old, black or white. Personally I can say that one line in particular from the concluding piece of spoken word will stay with me forever, “What if everyone thought about their future before they act in the present.”
So if you are in the New York City area this February and early March make sure to check out Viva Africa. Believe me when I say it is well worth the trek up to Brentwood, Long Island. And make sure to connect with The Truth Urban Theater group on Facebook and Instagram.
(Disclaimer: This is a sponsored post but all opinions are my own.)