nytheatre.com review by Kevin Connell
September 15, 2006
Here's a musical that's right out of the barrio. The kind of barrio I try to avoid. The kind of barrio whose inhabitants rule the streets and band together in rivaling packs, or cliques, or secret societies (or dare I say—gangs?). Where mortal danger permeates the air. Where boys and girls play out some kind of drama far too Greek, too uncivilized, too senseless, and too hopeless for me to want to witness, to acknowledge, to care. For them, 19 is old. There is no future and life is only seconds long. And I sat in the theatre wanting to walk on the other side of the street to avoid the ugliness and danger and difference. I wanted to pretend that my life was prettier. But I realize, a day later, that my resistance and arrogance only perpetuates more oppression of these inhabitants of my city, my street, my home.
Kingdom is the story of seven Latinos and their underground organization called the Almighty Latin King & Queen Nation. Basically, it's a story about the search for honor and respect told through the central characters of Andres and Juan—whose job prospects go no further than Dunkin' Donuts or selling drugs on the streets. They quit their jobs, join the Almighty Latin King & Queen Nation, and are forever changed by multiple tragedies resulting in murder and suicide. Unfortunately, in Kingdom, the contest of a basketball game is not just a pastime or exercise, it's a matter of dominance and ownership, and the loser shoots the winner, with a handgun, execution style.
Kingdom has a rap/hip-hop/rock score by Ian Williams, and the book and lyrics are by Aaron Jafferis. Together, they have created a compelling and brutally uncomfortable piece of theatre. But there are flaws; for example, the device of having the actors talk to the audience at the beginning of the play did not work for me. It feels contrived and unsophisticated. Additionally, the opening rap which supposedly transitions the audience into the story lacked purpose or any interest to me. Kingdom needs a smarter opening so I don't want to leave the theatre two minutes into the experience. I certainly hope this is a piece still under investigation and development.
Louis Moreno's direction is effective and urban in its sensibility. He utilizes the simplest of stage pictures and grounds all the actors in the depths of action. He made me care about this story of lost souls, in spite of my overwhelming desire to run away and to ignore it all, and for that he is to be commended. His imagination transformed Arnulfo Maldonado's set design, which focused on a chain link fence framing a basketball hoop on a pole, into a compelling and metaphorical world—more crucifix than basketball hoop; more cemetery than playground.
The cast—which includes Marisa Echeverria, Michael Improta, Ronny Mercedes, Andres Munar, Flaco Navaja, Gio Perez, and Gerardo Rodriguez—is well-intentioned and invested in the production. There is an unrefined quality in all their performances that is refreshingly raw and unconventional. Not the best of voices here, but certainly the best of spirits. As an ensemble they are to be equally praised. Unfortunately, during the performance I attended, the production suffered from a band of musicians that were far too loud, a failing sound system, and continuous microphone reverb, which worked against the complex and poetic expressions written by Jafferis and Williams and performed by these fine actors.