Brooklyn’s latest “it” neighborhood, Bushwick, has been going through a rapid-fire metamorphosis in the last few years.
First came the coffee shops and bars. Then came the specialty juice shop where the asymmetrically hairstyled could be seen sipping green smoothies. Next it was an artisanal hot dog seller. A craft beer spot now sits across the street from an auto body repair garage while a beloved taco place, Los Hermanos, still sells scrumptious creations for next to nothing. But even things have changed there: Los Hermanos has expanded its seating, and one never knows how long the line to get in the door will be.
Sitting in the center of it all is the Obie-winning theatre the Bushwick Starr (just a few paces down from the auto body shop), which consistently presents adventurous live performance while also striving to be a neighborhood center that serves its surrounding community. During the summer the theatre grows kale on its rooftop garden, and every spring it hosts a Big Green Theatre festival, an eco-playwriting program featuring writing by neighborhood 5th graders.
The theatre effectively occupies a curious nexus between the Bushwick of before and the rapidly gentrifying Bushwick of today. Amid the Starr’s unique cultural space swirls the figure of Modesto Flako Jimenez, a Bushwick-born actor/poet/curator. Jimenez, whose acerbic wit is as sharp as his performance style, helms the performance ensemble Brooklyn Gypsies, which regularly performs on the Starr’s stage. Evenings hosted by Brooklyn Gypsies combine music, poetry, and theatre with the intent of uniting newcomers to the neighborhood with longtime residents. Food is always served post-show as a bridge to connect everyone.
It’s no wonder that Brooklyn Gypsies, association with Teatrica Theatre Company and the Starr, is producing the theatre’s first Spanish-language production. Yoleros, written by Alex Vásquez Escaño and directed by Martin Balmaceda, opens tonight and plays through Dec. 19, and features the magnetic Jimenez alongside actors Mathia Vargas and Sully Bonnelly.
“We are so excited to tell our story and tell it in our language,” says playwright Escaño, adding that Yoleros will feature projected supertitles in English. “We want to figure out a way to tell our story and how it’s supposed to be told, but in a way that everyone can understand it. Even though 70 percent of the people in Bushwick are Latino, there is not Latino-specific theatre here.”
Yoleros centers around three people searching for new beginnings who decide to leave their native Dominican Republic and set out for Puerto Rico in a makeshift boat called a yola. Jimenez plays Maximo, a wily lottery vendor and risky tour guide. “This play is so personal for me,” Jimenez says. “This is about my countrymen that risked their lives to go to Puerto Rico.”
Once the three characters are together at sea the play shifts into a kind of dream state. “They have to face their emotional issues,” explains Escaño. “They try to support each other while they are on the boat but also process the reasons why they are leaving.”
Escaño, who grew up in the DR, describes how writing Yoleros grew out of a desire to respond to people who dismiss others who set off reaching for a new start without understanding what exactly is pushing them out and away.
“I’ve mixed research with true stories of what has happened to people on these trips,” he says, adding that the HOLA award-winning play also makes use of music and Dominican hymns.
Jimenez is equal parts jazzed (“My two co-stars are amazing, our director take-it-to-the-limit”) and thoughtful. “We know there is a necessity for this show in the neighborhood,” he says. “It’s about figuring out a balance for the masses and not just making regional theatre that only speaks to one class.”