In playwright Felix Rojas’ Growing Up Gonzales, Johnny Gonzales, who is in his late 40’s, goes to the apartment of his recently deceased, five years younger brother Cisco, to clean it out. He comes across Cisco’s journals, letters and cassette recordings of himself. The conceit of the play has the action alternating between Johnny in the present and Cisco in the past.
Mr. Rojas vividly creates an entertaining panorama of the Puerto Rican community in The Bronx of the 1960’s and 1970’s. A gallery of characters and numerous incidents are lovingly described. Orchard Beach, Roberto Clemente, various foods, the Catholic Church and a visit to Puerto Rico are among the cultural touchstones that are represented.
Running one hour and 50 minutes with an intermission, a somewhat more taut structure would have yielded a greater dimension of dramatic momentum. Still, there is much that is compelling.
The fatal and random shooting of their loving father when the brothers were children is the defining moment. This catastrophe plunges the family into turmoil. Previously their lives were stable and relatively idyllic. Johnny goes through the negative cycle of drug addiction and incarceration. The gentle Cisco never really emotionally develops, remaining single and living in his Bronx apartment that’s hung with Bruce Lee posters.
With the swagger of a seasoned stand-up comedian, and the delivery of a slam poet, Mr. Rodriguez delivers a gripping performance. Rodriguez offers two distinctive characterizations as the brothers. Vocally and physically each one is uniquely rendered. He also is an excellent mime and that skill is frequently on display.
Searing highlights include Rodriguez’s recounting a 12-year-old boy losing his virginity to a prostitute, their mother trying heroin so she can understand what her son is going through, and tales of crime in the neighborhood. There’s marvelous reminiscence of their agrandmother’s fortitude.
Rojas’ direction is a straightforward staging that has Rodriguez front and center for much of the show. Though simple, the scenic design conjures up the sense of The Bronx with its basic furnishings and doorway with a memorial candle, and a note about their electrical service interruptions in the building signed “El Super.”
James “Pres” Carter’s accomplished lighting design creates the desired sense of the past and present with its precise fluctuations and focus on Rodriguez.
Though small in scale, Growing Up Gonzales is a picturesque and moving experience.
Growing Up Gonzales (through April 9, 2017)
Medicine Show Theater, 549 West 52nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.growingupgonzales.com
Running time: one hour and 50 minutes with one intermission