Pulling Back the Curtain on Caborca Theatre’s ZOETROPE

Photo by Maria Baranova

Abrons Arts Center’s Playhouse Theater has been in continuous operation since 1915. Originally founded as the “Neighborhood Playhouse,” it is a legendary stage with a myriad of lessons for these trying times in which the spirit of authoritarianism and intolerance have resurfaced with a vengeance. It is a platform that has always made space for the migrants who have played an essential role in the development of this city and country. When most of the country still espoused segregation, the Playhouse practiced integration. When ideas around immigration were synonymous with assimilation, the Playhouse welcomed and supported newcomers on their own terms. 

Located deep in the bowels of the Lower East Side/Loisaida––a neighborhood where the sounds of Yiddish, Spanish, English, Spanglish, and Cantonese can still be heard today––the Abrons Arts Center carries on the spirit and intersections of the settlement house movement. It is only fitting then that Caborca’s Zoetrope is honoring––and being honored––by this stage. 

Running at the Playhouse Theater through October 8th, Zoetrope is imbued with a timeless quality yet coils around unique events, namely, the first massive airborne migration in history. During the early postwar years, hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans migrated to the United States, with many arriving in New York City. This exodus from the island bore a deep and embarrassing colonial stench, which still lingers. 

Javier Antonio González, writer and director of the play, has gifted us with that rarest of offerings: an elegant, open-ended, byzantine, and improvisational work of agit-prop, where the links of romantic love and human rights are made evident, where displacement and growing roots are symbiotic processes, and where an earnest embrace of national identity and being bilingual (or something like it!) are not mutually exclusive. Zoetrope is technically masterful, funny, moving, precise, gut-wrenching, political, blood-boiling, and galvanizing. The actors make you believe they are improvising, when they are not, and make you feel that you are watching a scripted performance when, in fact, they are making things up right then. 

Songs, sounds, and rhythm in Zoetrope mean something. They are not accidents. They are guardrails pointing to the limits of what is comforting and unsettling. Akin to jazz music, the beauty of the play is that things get really weird, really fast at times, but always go back to the tune. Zoetrope is performed by a rotating cast, with two sets of actors for each role. The two sets of actors are constantly mixed, resulting in an ever-changing cast; monotony is replaced by strangeness and a lively organic vibe.

While in a rehearsal, I found myself high and disoriented on the oscillations between here and there, in and out, and English and Spanish (and Spanglish). I turned to Javier Antonio as a guide, tuning into the directions they gave to the actors, as to get a grip on how the sausage got made. I heard them utter two directives that are the deep operating instructions of this work. Javier Antonio did not know I was keeping such close watch over them and taking notes, so I confess to feeling a bit naughty for giving y’all a peek behind the curtain. 

There are things I know that you do not. Maybe you’ll find them interesting. 

Direction 1
own your space

Javier Antonio stopped the rehearsal, stood up tall and spread their arms out wide. “Do not look for cues. Do not wait for cues. Do not rush. I prefer you to linger. The transition from Puerto Rico to New York is cinematic. There are no breaks. Here and there is one place. Flow. There is no choreography.”

In Zoetrope, drama harkens back to Homer’s Odyssey of lovers separated due to forced migrations, of searches for identity that are both communal and individual. People are on the move, looking for one another and loved ones, and while doing so, they are uncomfortable, neither here nor there, living as if trapped inside a revolving door. Yet, the actors are supposed to own their space, push themselves to wrestle with time and linger. They must not wait for the “right moment” to transition, but act as if they belong, even when the circumstances say otherwise. Zoetrope is not only a meditation on distant love, violent politics, and displacement, but a non-moralistic prescription of how we are to preserve our humanity in such times. Rather than freeze or waver, hard, jarring transitions are supposed to be surfed as if they were natural. 

Direction 2
own your politics

Javier Antonio smiled, rolled their eyes, and then fixed them sternly on the actors. “Do not ask rhetorical questions. Nothing is rhetorical. Expect an answer. Demand an answer when you ask something. All questions are meant to be answered.”

The search for roots, togetherness, love, and belonging forces us to adapt rhetorical modes of being. Questions are abundant, open, and directionless. Answers can be conflicting and vague. As I watch the actors in Zoetrope embody the chaos and need for mooring expressed by their characters, I realize that most of them are Puerto Rican and migrants themselves. These actors, like their characters, are also in transition, living away from an ancestral homeland. Javier Antonio’s instruction on questioning, as a way of demanding answers, reminds me of what we are owed individually and collectively. Demanding an answer attends to the urgency of our predicament, and at the very least, we can own our politics.

A zoetrope is a stationary cylinder that rotates on itself and gives the impression of movement. Zoetrope, the play, expresses movement and stasis at the same time. Pay attention to what happens on that stage. That unchoreographed dance was the life of your ancestors, and if it is not your life now, it just might be in the future. Zoetrope, under Javier Antonio’s writing and direction, and the alacrity of its cast, conveys the stories of the ancient forces that crush us and make our modern lives possible––without asking a single rhetorical question or waiting for a cue.

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