Review: Vámonos Is a Snapshot of One Dominican-American Family in the Wake of 9/11
Julie has visions. The morning of September 11, 2001, she awoke from a terrible nightmare of firefighters and civilians running through the streets of Manhattan — just hours before everyone witnessed those same scenes on live television. Playwright Julissa Contreras dramatizes the momentous year that followed for both America and Julie’s family in Vámonos, now making its world premiere off-off-Broadway in a co-production by INTAR and Radio Drama Network.
The opening scenes take place on that fateful morning, when Anna (Yohanna Florentino) sent her children, Julie (Kiará Lauren) and Junior (Ansi Rodríguez), off to school, warding off Junior’s feigned illness with the all-healing power of Vicks VapoRub. Anna’s sister, Juana (Cindy Peralta), and her children, Yoira (Angela Reynoso) and Edward (Denzel Rodríguez), live a floor above — an extended Dominican-American family (sans Juana’s absentee husband, now back in Santo Domingo) thriving in the same Bronx apartment building.
Flash forward a year and two months (projection designer Stefania Bulbarella and sound designer Germán Martínez thrillingly create this time warp with an explosion of images and sounds). Anna’s husband, Pablo (Cesar J. Rosado), has moved his immediate family to New Jersey, but they have returned to the Bronx for the baptism of Yoira’s new baby. All crowd into Juana’s apartment to eat cake, pick the scabs off old wounds, and await a phone call from Alex, Juana’s eldest, who enlisted in the army just before 9/11 and is now stationed in Germany.
In reviving the outmoded genre of the 9/11 drama, Contreras proves that earlier attempts (most of which weren’t very good) were entirely premature. With two decades of hindsight, Contreras crafts a narrative that is informed by national trauma without losing focus on the human beings before us. No grand pronouncements are made regarding America’s role in the world, nor does the playwright indulge in the kind of cheap prescience that attempts to draw a line from that turning point to the present moment. Instead, Contreras captures the truth of 2002, which is that most people turned away from CNN in favor of their own personal dramas and desires.
“Now, watch this drive,” President George W. Bush says during one of Bulbarella’s sharply curated video interludes. If even the commander-in-chief cannot be distracted from his busy schedule of leisure, why should anyone else?
Certainly, the characters of Vámonos have places to go and things to achieve. Florentino delivers a compelling portrayal of a woman on the move: a new American citizen (and possibly a Republican) who still speaks to her sister in Spanish but has become less tolerant of Juana’s little cabinet of Santería above the white refrigerator (Contreras never flinches in her realistic presentation of language, with the older characters speaking to their children in Spanish, and them answering back in English). As Juana, Peralta forcefully and unsentimentally embodies a character who is less mobile, left behind by husband and now sister, fueling her resentment with glass after glass of Carlo Rossi. Her cruel confrontation with Yoira (Reynoso makes us feel her rage and heartbreak) is one of the tensest points of the play.
Director Tatyana-Marie Carlo has led the entire cast to memorable performances: As Pablo, the irresistibly charming Rosado makes Cliff Huxtable look like a deadbeat, benevolently shepherding not just his own children, but Edward (Denzel Rodríguez gives a performance that is both prickly and sensitive, perfectly appropriate for a 15-year-old). A gifted physical comedian, Ansi Rodríguez has us rolling with Junior’s attempt to sneak another glass of generic orange soda. And Lauren is magnetic in her portrayal of Julie, the young woman most people ignore, which allows her to see them all while holding on to her own secrets.
And that’s a hard thing to do in an apartment this overstuffed. We feel invited to the party through Rodrigo Escalante’s detailed set. Jennifer Colón enriches the story with each costume (Junior has clearly outgrown his suit jacket, while Edward has yet to grow into the hand-me-down he’s wearing). And lighting designer Alberto Ruíz helps to create much of the magic in this otherwise realistic world, stealthily pulling us back into the realm of memory.
Having just emerged from another period of national emergency, we should all recognize the truth undergirding Vámonos: You may think it’s the end of the world, and they may write that in the New York Times, but life moves on. And so do you.