‘Isleña’ is a powerful, joyful experience from Racies Theater | Arts

The Bluebird of Happiness may be nesting in the backyard of your childhood home, but so, too, are rats and bats and creatures that haunt the night. The memories of childhood are steeped in nostalgia, but for every comforting recollection of apple pie and raindrops on roses, there is a glimmer of Bruno Bettelheim and the Brothers Grimm.

In “Isleña,” a one-person play performed by Victoria Perez of Raices Theater Company, the actress explores her relationship with the island of Puerto Rico, which was her childhood home until the age of nine. That’s when her parents moved to Buffalo, reuniting the extended family, but tearing young Vickie away from the only home she had ever known, and obliging her to adopt an unfamiliar language, unfamiliar relations, unfamiliar food and an entirely new life. As Perez recalls, she could already feel the chill in the air, and it was only September.

The “Isleña” script, written by Perez and her sister, Maria Perez-Gomez, who also directs the production, is, on its surface, a celebration of Puerto Rican culture and identity. The narrative deftly taps into this wistful impulse. As the play begins, Perez is in her kitchen, singing while making traditional Puerto Rican rice and beans. She will sing, dance and narrate her way through the simple story of how she came to be a Buffalonian, and her reaction to returning to visit Puerto Rico as an adult.

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An excellent actress and singer, Victoria Pérez shares her own story playing all nine characters in “Isleña.”

Kyle Berrios

Perez is an excellent actress and singer, and a born storyteller. Comfortably switching between English and flourishes in Spanish, she delights the audience by cultural signposts that reverberate with Puerto hitting Rican identity: cooking, popular music, telenovelas. These references are rewarded with instantaneous affirmation from the audience. Such moments even include the waving of the Puerto Rican flag. This is a love letter to the island of Puerto Rico, but it is also a great deal more.

A sudden opportunity to visit the island again as an adult obliges Perez to confront her irrevocably changed life and some suppressed elements of her childhood that she would prefer to forget. This play is an examination of her life and, ultimately, an imagined conversation between Victoria now and her 9-year-old self. Her early appraisal of the losses is supplanted by the overwhelming abundance of life’s blessings.

For such a simple one-person play, “Isleña” is produced with surprising generosity. Raices Theater Company has clearly decided to use the advantages of their newly established residency at Road Less Traveled Theater to the fullest. A set by Tiffany Jaramillo depicts the complete kitchen and bedroom of Perez’s home. Through a scrim at center stage, we see and hear an excellent four-piece band – keyboard, saxophones, trumpet and percussion – under the direction of Kevin Doyle, that accompanies the numerous musical numbers. Sound and light by Nicholas Quinn enrich the experience, even filling the air with the sound of the Puerto Rican “coqui” (koe-KEE), a small chirping frog that is an unofficial symbol of the island and the only word of Spanish the uninitiated must learn to enjoy “Isleña” fully.

Victoria Pérez explores universal themes of home, healing in one-woman show 'Isleña'

The Raíces Theater Company’s “Isleña,” an original production, is a generation-spanning biography with nine characters, told in story, poetry and song.

In addition to their natural gift for storytelling, the sisters Perez also have a gift for the laughter, as the script skillfully and frequently tickles our funny bones. These moments come naturally and seemingly without effort, as when Victoria invites an audience member to taste her rice and beans, or when young Victoria laments the flavorless food of her newly adopted city (a lament that her uncle sets to music). While the story she relates is autobiographical, there is nothing self-important about its telling. With her appealing and self-deprecating stage presence, Perez takes us into her confidence and onto her journey as though we were her trusted friends.

It goes without saying that every human story is a universal story. “Isleña,” which translates roughly to mean “island girl,” might seem very specifically Puerto Rican, and it is. Certainly, Puerto Rican members of the audience felt a special surge of joy at hearing Victoria’s tale. At the same time, the universal experience of both coming to terms with childhood and of childhood behind makes “Isleña” a powerful and joyful experience for every member of the audience.

Raices Theater Company at Road Less Traveled Theater (456 Main St.). Performances are 7:30 pm Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, and 6 pm Sundays through July 3. Tickets are $20 to $25 (raicestheatercompany.com, 716-381-9333).


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