Imagine going to a nightclub and having a play break out in the middle of the dance floor.
That is what "DJ Latinidad" feels like.
The Mark Valdez-directed anthology of shorts and playlets premiered over the weekend at Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis. Billed as a celebration of Hispanic arts and culture, it is a throbbing, pumping dance party with some social issues thrown in.
Mixed Blood has removed the seats from its West Bank Minneapolis playhouse. The box-office attendants hand out glow rings with admission. And the dance music booming from the speakers helps to give it an authentic nightspot vibe.
Valdez's approach is a departure for a show billed as a dramatic celebration. Usually, such shows take their cue more from academic studies than from festive social gatherings. But there's a good reason for Valdez's tack. It's as if the director, who curated the pieces from the likes of Maria Isa, Octavio Solis, Junot Diaz and Michael John Garcés, wants to free Hispanics from the sociological framework so often applied around discussions of this varied, diverse demographic.
That is not to say this 100-minute production is free of social concerns. To the contrary. The conversation and dialogue, which comes in when the music is turned down, includes references to family illness and love as well as pressures caused by immigration and police harassment. Isa's "Utah/Driving Black, Riding Brown," for example, is a witty, hip piece of performance poetry. And Virginia Grise's "My Lover" is a tough bit about the heart.
But, as in life, the real concerns coexist with joy and dancing.
The "DJ Latinidad" ensemble consists of Raúl Ramos, Ricardo Vazquez, Thallis Santesteban, Christopher Rivas, Natalie Camunas, Mildred Ruiz-Sapp and choreographer Brian Bose. They function like Shakespearean sprites, going around the room and imbuing what they touch with a little bit of mischief and magic.
The authentic tone of the evening is set by DJ Breakbeat Lou, a hip-hop turntablist from back in the day who spins rap, rock and Latin jams, including Blondie's "Call Me" and DJ Casper's "Cha Cha Slide." We are invited often, by Breakbeat Lou and the cast, to dance.
But we do not have to; we could just watch the proceedings as the music quiets and we focus in on the center of the dance floor. That's where, in one of the early striking scenes, five actors enact Solis' "Last Day Ever," about a San Francisco man who has a terminal diagnosis. He decides to have a blowout party with his friends, then take his own life.
Each of the performers holds a lantern that has been suspended from the ceiling close to their faces. As they enact the story, the scene looks like a high-tech version of a campfire gathering.
Valdez is not the first to deconstruct a theater and recreate it as a nightclub. Director Diane Paulus used music and roller skates in "The Donkey Show," her disco-inflected interpolation of "A Midsummer Night's Dream." "Latinidad" taps into a similar spirit of creativity, abandon and fun, but with a serious Latin accent.