Would a fitting local version of “Nuyorican” (a term for New Yorkers of Puerto Rican decent) be “Newmejicano”? Or “Santaspanico”?
For Matt Barbot, the Brooklyn-bred, thirty-two-year-old, Nuyorican playwright of El Coquí Espectacular and the Bottle of Doom, opening at El Teatro Paraguas on April 11, being “sorta-Rican” is a theme. His play is up to the minute, with dialogue in the form of Twitter posts, hashtag jokes, and a plot turn when things begin to go viral. But if the internet plays a part in the show, comic books play an even bigger role. El Coquí asks, Why are there no Hispanic superheroes?
“The play is about identity,” director Roxanne Tapia said after a recent rehearsal. She personally relates to the “sorta-Rican” idea. “There is a certain amount of shame in being a Latina like me that does not speak great Spanish,” she said. And although El Coquí is set in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, Tapia said that many of the issues of gentrification raised in the play are also relevant to longtime Santa Fe residents.
A coquí is a tree frog found only in Puerto Rico. It’s also the name that Barbot’s protagonist, comic book hero Alex Nuñez (Miles Blitch), takes to get his career off the ground. The frog reference was inspired by a colorful and frightening vejigante mask (a traditional costume at Puerto Rico’s Carnival celebrations) his deceased father once brought back from a trip to the homeland. Meanwhile, Alex’s brother, Joe ( Jake McCook), is working as the token Hispanic advertising executive in charge of selling a new soft drink, Voltage cola (the “Bottle of Doom” in the play’s title), specifically to a Latino audience already facing increasing levels of obesity and a diabetes epidemic.
Problems begin when Alex decides to borrow the mask, put on some tights, and go out at night to jump around on rooftops and fire escapes in his neighborhood, dressed as El Coquí Espectacular. In the midst of making a superhero-style rescue during a purse snatching, Alex-in-tights is beaten up by the assailants, and a bystander with a camera captures all of it and it goes viral. Who, people wonder, is this masked tree frog?
In his own career, Barbot not only earned an MFA in writing at Columbia University but also worked as an editor and writer for comic book creator Edgardo Miranda-Rodriguez. He was also employed by Remezcla, a Latinx digital media company where he wrote and produced a short film for Pepsi shot in Harlem that featured the New York Giants’ Victor Cruz. Barbot also produced a web series, Bodega Chat, for Brisk Iced Tea. Questions raised in the playwright’s commercial work — about selling out one’s own culture — have clearly found their way into El Coquí.
Another character in the play is called El Chupacabra (Ricky Mars), a name referring to a blood-sucking mythical creature in Puerto Rico, sometimes described as a reptilian vampire that kills animals and jumps around like a kangaroo. Chupacabra, in this case, is in Alex’s mind: He is the self-doubt and writer’s block Alex faces every day; he is the voice in his head screaming, “You’re not Puerto Rican enough.” At one point, El Chupacabra brings out a strange-looking weapon with tubes and dials.
“Gaze upon my Dream-Catcher, a demotivational device of the highest degree. Powered entirely by high-fructose corn syrup, the Dream-Catcher will use powerful demotivational energy waves to irradiate ordinary bottles of soda, turning them into bottles of DOOM, which will alter the brain patterns of any Nuyorican who drinks from them, causing them to lose sight of who they are.”
“This is a Latino play,” director Tapia said. “When you get really into something, you’re nerdy. I’m nerdy about Game of Thrones, books, Harry Potter, math, musical instruments, theater. Alex is nerdy about comic books. At the same time, he’s Puerto Rican. I think a Puerto Rican superhero would be a cool thing. We have a young cast and a young playwright. We’re hoping some of the young people in Santa Fe who go to see all the Marvel movies might come to our play and see themselves being represented.
“At one point, Alex says, ‘Heroes can exist, even in Sunset Park.’ Santa Fe is no different.” ◀
▼ Teatro Paraguas presents El Coquí Espectacular
and the Bottle of Doom
▼ Thursday, April 11, through April 28; 7:30 p.m. Thursdays
through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays
▼ Teatro Paraguas, 3205 Calle Marie
▼ $20 ($12 limited income); pay-what-you-wish Thursdays;
call 505-424-1601 or go to brownpapertickets.com