All Over the Place
The places include North Philadelphia, Arizona, Jordan, and Egypt. Unfortunately the playwright, Quiera Allegria Hudes, is all over the place, too. Not that she’s wrong to tackle so many issues, but this crazy quilt doesn’t ever get stitched together.
The Happiest Song Plays Last, is the third play of a trilogy about Puerto Ricans in America, particularly those living in North Philadelphia and those who join the military to fight for the US. There is also a musical theme, as the first play (Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue) revolves around the family flute and takes the structure of a fugue, the second (Water By the Spoonful) involves a piano and jazz, and in this, the third play, the musical instrument featured is the cuatro, a Puerto Rican stringed instrument, similar to a guitar.
Elliot (Brandon Caban), who is at the center of all three plays, is a former marine suffering from PTSD and haunted by his first kill. He is now the consultant on an independent movie about the war in Iraq being filmed in Jordan. A strange series of events has ended with the lead actor canned and Elliot playing the lead, which puts him uncomfortably back in a combat role. In the first scene being filmed we see his character confronting an Iraqi woman, played by part-Egyptian actress Shar (Victoria Brown-Wilson), in the midst of fog, flashes, and loud explosions. No surprise that for “Take Two” Elliot’s PTSD has kicked in and he goes over the top and the director loves it.
We never see the director, who communicates with the assistant director and general factotum Ali (Paul Yau) through texts. (So one problem with the play is that the movie set is represented by only those 3 actors, when in reality there would be hordes of actors and crew on set.)
These three characters develop a friendship. Ali takes them to his house and plans a tour to Petra. But at that moment in Cairo there is the Arab Spring revolution, and Elliot wants to go there to be part of the excitement. He persuades Shar to go, but Ali is left behind as he is an undocumented refugee from Iraq; he can’t cross the border without papers. Yau effectively coveys Ali’s combination of friendliness, fear, and pragmatism.
Meanwhile back in North Philly Elliot’s cousin Yaz (Becky McGarvey), while she continues to teach music at the college, has moved back to her aunt’s house in the barrio and cooks Puerto Rican comfort food, providing meals for the homeless, represented by Lefty (James Charles Roberts). She becomes involved with Augustin (Hawaii newcomer David Greene), an older social activist and former cuatro player.
The connection between the cousins is provided by Skyping and texting, and their teasing banter is supposed to connect the two plots with humor. There is drama and melodrama. There is a diatribe against uncaring medical facilities. A pregnancy is suspected. A year passes and Elliot is now a movie star, returning to Yaz’s house for a reunion.
Just too much going on. And I haven’t even mentioned the protest in Arizona.
Everyone in the production is doing his or her best. Director Peggy Anne Siegmund has tried to provide connective tissue by means of a trio of musicians (John Ortiz on the cuatro, Gena Perry on the guiro, and Jo Mohika on guitar) who play and sometimes sing during scene changes (leaving many in the audience straining to remember their high school Spanish. I think the bonita bandera is the “beautiful flag” of Puerto Rico) and we know viejo is “old” San Juan.) The songs are clearly about P.R. and they help provide the family/cultural connection of the geographically separated cousins.
Moving between North Philly and the Middle East is cleverly effected by means of a folding screen which divides the stage front to back. The Middle East, complete with projected map, can disappear when the screen is folded up to reveal Yaz’s kitchen.
I just wish the play had a wholeness to it. Instead it seemed that Hudes wanted to stick into this last play of the trilogy any thought that had crossed her mind, as if this was her last chance to tell us all the things that concern her about life in America for Puerto Ricans and about the effects of Middle Eastern politics on both American soldiers and Arab refugees.
Many of the plays and musicals on stage on O’ahu this winter have confronted issues of importance: divisions by race, class, religion (Evolve’s Intimate Apparel), ageism (DHT’s Calendar Girls), mental illness (Living Room at Kumu Kahua), gender bending (Baskerville at MVT), bullying (HTY’s Red Balloon), even HOT’s As One, the story of a woman trapped in a male body. Happiest Song fits in this list as a reminder that residents of Puerto Rico are US citizens and Puerto Rico sends its men and women to fight for America. TAG is collecting money to send to Puerto Rico to aid their rebuilding efforts after the devastating hurricane Maria last September. Good idea.