PROVIDENCE, RI — Sometimes a theatrical production takes us to an unfamiliar place and creates such a vivid impression, we feel like we've been there.
For a native Rhode Islander like me, that's the case with the community of “La Broa' (Broad Street)” the world-premiere production being presented by Trinity Repertory Company through February 18.
For those who have immigrated to the Ocean State, the play looks at the challenges in acclimating to new surroundings, mores and language. On opening night, people in the audience clearly related to circumstances depicted on stage and responded spontaneously.
And for anyone seeking a good story — both actually, multiple stories — funny and heartfelt, “La Broa'” checks that box, too.
“La Broa'” is based on the real-life stories of Latina/Latino Rhode Islanders, as documented by Marta V. Martínez in the oral history “Nuestras Raíces” (“Our Roots”). Playwright Orlando Hernandez distilled hours of her interviews into this compelling, affecting and entertaining two-act play.
The setting is Providence's Broad Street where people from many countries create a community of immigrants with one thing in common, the Spanish language.
They all gravitate to Doña Rosa's Market, initially to find foods from home. Like Doña Fefa Rosario's actual market, which was Providence's first Latina-owned business, Rosa's Market becomes a de facto community center and a meeting place for activists.
The play covers a lot of time, from 1947 to present day, and experiences vary. The news during those years serves as a backdrop to local progress and setbacks. Designer Peter Sasha Hurowitz employs a phalanx of old television sets to “broadcast” clips from local reports, notably, Gov. John Chafee signing a fair housing act in 1963; to national events, including the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.; and international news, such as unrest in Guatemala.
Some of the immigrant experiences are sobering, including housing discrimination and pay disparities. Institutional obstacles are brought up, as in a case where a hospitalized person nearly dies because there was no one to translate for patient and physicians. The need for translators becomes one of the activists' issues and ultimately brings Portuguese-speakers into an alliance with the Spanish-speaking groups.
Other situations are light-hearted and often humorous. In one scene, a young woman practices English pronunciation so she can order a burger and an ice cream sundae at Newport Creamery. The scene is played with gentle humor and is charming. Director Tatyana-Marie Carlo leads throughout with empathy and a sure hand for tone.
The story plays out on designer Patrick Lynch's flexible set, which evokes Rosa's Market in realistic detail, while other scenes are more suggestive. All it takes is a bulky desk to represent the dorm room at Providence College where the real Marta V. Martinez began her oral-history project for a journalism class. She is portrayed by a character, Ana, in the play.
Although experiences cannot be explored in depth in a roughly two-hour play, the characters come to life thanks to the talented cast of 10 guest artists and Brown/Trinity Rep master's degree students. Most play multiple characters, and occasionally that's confusing. Moreover, actors switch between speaking English and Spanish, and I know I missed the Spanish jokes. As scenes play out, however, there is enough body language and situational cues to help with understanding.
“La Broa'” doesn't break new ground, but it does create that vivid experience, which enhances understanding — and does it with heart, humor and a hopeful ending.
La Broa' (Broad Street) runs through Feb. 18 in the Dowling Theater. Tickets are available for purchase in person at the ticket office in the theater, 201 Washington St.; online at trinityrep.com/labroa; or by calling (401) 351-4242.
'Theater Review' is a recurring feature in the Independent featuring reviews of art-related events throughout the state of Rhode Island with local ties to the area or productions that may be of general interest to local residents. To submit your event for consideration, email email@example.com.