Review: Energizing, vibrant, and potent, ‘The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano’ closes out the CSA season on a high note

Photographs by Renee Rosensteel.

Continuing Recital’s sponsored partnership with the New Hazlett Theater, we are presenting a series of editorially-independent previews and reviews of the 2021 Community Supported Art (CSA) Performance Series. Below is our review of The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano by Tlaloc Rivas, a collaborative response from Recital editor David Bernabo and guest panelists Jason Baldinger, Ariel Xiu, and Vanessa Reseland. Read their bios at the end of the review.

By David Bernabo

Energizing, vibrant, and potent, The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano closes out the eighth season of the New Hazlett Theater’s CSA performance series in grand fashion. Presented as a workshop performance and based on Sonia Manzano’s book of the same name, Tlaloc Rivas’s play presents a fictionalized look at the emergence of the Young Lords in East Harlem in 1969 as told through the eyes of 14-year old Evelyn. The cast is impressive, taking on multiple roles, frequently picking up instruments and breaking into song as they chart the radicalization of Evelyn and her friends during a dynamic period of change in American history. Despite it’s “workshop” status, the performance is slick, the songs feel alive, and the calls for revolution, improving one’s community, and tearing down oppressive systems are still vital.

The year is 1979. The stage depicts a radio station where a group re-enacts two sets of events: the Young Lords’ East Harlem Garbage Offensive in the summer of 1969 and the 11-day occupation of the First Spanish Methodist Church and it’s reinvention as the People’s Church. The Young Lords emerged in the late 60s in Chicago and quickly formed chapters in New York and places along the east and west coasts. Modeled after the Black Panthers, the Young Lords were a civil and human rights organization that advocated for Puerto Rican independence and self-determination as well as neighborhood empowerment. To that end, the group set up free breakfast programs and education opportunities. Evelyn’s (Carolina Campos) story and her evolving relationships with her friends, her strict but caring mother (Jade Langan), and her recently arrived and fiercely radical grandmother (Kelsey Robinson) thread these historical events together with an engaging and intimate personal narrative.

East Harlem in the hot summer of 1969 smells like basuda or trash according to Evelyn. Her mother justifies their living there by mentioning two entities that she blames for ruining the potential of Puerto Rico — crooked politicians and selfish radicals. People know Evelyn as Maria or Rosa, but with budding personal agency, she decides to call herself Evelyn, her second middle name. Evelyn begins a part-time job at the five and dime where she meets Abuela, her grandmother, a soon-to-be catalyst in Evelyn’s evolving political interests. Before knowing about, let alone joining the Young Lords, Evelyn veers between advocating for personal responsibility and leaping into the unknown. Early in the play, Evelyn channels her mother when berating a friend for his lack of responsibility to work and family — “do you want to be like the glue sniffers and bums?” But after learning about the Young Lords’ mission, Evelyn feels like she is “wearing a new pair of glasses.”

Ears and eyes open, she learns about Stonewall and episodes of bias in policing. The East Harlem Garbage Offensive occurs when the Young Lords commandeer brooms from the NYC sanitation department, sweep the garbage the city has neglected to pick up into barricades to block traffic. These piles are then set on fire to prevent anyone from picking them apart to allow traffic to flow. The media arrives and the Young Lords shame the city into picking up the neighborhood’s trash on a regular basis. At this point in the play, Evelyn is confused about the flaming garbage. She’s also unsure why her mother and grandmother don’t get along.

Later in December, the Young Lords occupy the First Spanish Methodist Church for 11 days. They introduce free breakfast and clothing programs. They rename the church the People’s Church. Evelyn is considered too young to join the Young Lords but remarks that the new masses feel joyous, that people are happy to be together. The occupation ends when police surround the church. Evelyn is flanked on either side by her mother and Abuela, and she has to choose who to follow. Those inside exit the church into a sea of chants and flying police batons. Evelyn follows her grandmother into the crowd but is hit. Bleeding and about to black out, her mother shows up and takes her to the hospital. Abuela stays with the Young Lords, abandoning Evelyn for the greater cause, like she did many years ago with Evelyn’s mother. “You can’t make people different,” Evelyn’s mother remarks.

The violence is largely offstage as this is a radio play reenactment of the events, but the threat and concern for the characters feels very immediate and very real.

The play is episodic, told like the collage of memories where certain events stand out vividly and others are omitted as months pass in a second. Monologues turn into conversations, which turn into songs, which fold back into monologues. Rivas’s direction is able to adjust the pace well within this structure. Whenever the show needs a jolt, the pace picks up and the cast falls into song.

The quick nature of the script and the revolving characters can, at times, leave viewers temporarily confused, but any confusion is quickly resolved as unresolved plot points fall into place. For example, near the end of the play, we learn some of the background on what drives Abuela to fight for Puerto Rican causes and why there is a divide with Evelyn’s mother. We learn that Evelyn’s grandfather (Abuela’s husband) was a police officer responsible for the murder of protestors and that Abuela tried to stop him, but couldn’t. In her attempts to stop her husband, she disregarded the needs of Evelyn’s mother.

The play also provides answers for questions we didn’t have. In addition to a dozen stiches and a concussion from the assault from the police, Evelyn’s Christmas present includes a surprise visit from her father, who had been living in Puerto Rico and pops into the play in a sweet but kind of random way.

All of the creative elements of the play work well together. The retro clothing — wide collars, fur, and printed fabric — along with the warm but faded patterned carpets place the play in the 70s somewhere. The music, composed by Sartje Pickett, feels full and live — not pre-recorded — and for newly written protest songs, the sound felt like the 60s and 70s without being overly referential or gimmicky. The instrumentation had a bare minimum quality (guitar, bass, percussion) which provided a credibility to the endeavor, and let the power of the vocals ring out.

Structuring the piece as a radio play is clever as our panel frequently forgot that we were watching a reenactment of 10-year old events. It’s fun to think about the difference of watching a play about events vs. watching a play about a play about events. Are we watching actors act as actors and does that change the required emotive qualities of the characters? The radio play concept also allows the audience to use our imaginations to visualize the street and the church and the bodega. The stage doesn’t have to carry the visuals, because, after all, the setting is a radio station.

On top of this solid foundation of song, costume, and set, the actors (Carolina Campos, Chloe Brown, Jade Langan, Gerardo Navarro Jr., Kelsey Robinson, Anthony Saldaña, and Ricardo Vila-Roger) consistently deliver passionate performances that bring these characters alive, even when they have to play up to five different characters.

In a filmed introduction, author Sonia Manzano reminds the audience that many of the issues depicted in her book are still with us today. Food insecurity, police brutality, and other racism-fueled inequities haven’t disappeared. Since our panel uniformly enjoyed this work, our post-show discussion turned to post-show feelings and impressions. We talked about revolution as a form of idealism, how that idealism puts bravery into people’s hearts and allows them to force the change that they want to see. How ideas of revolution are influential, pushing youth to walk a certain path, fueling their own self-discovery, fueling their empathy for those around them.

In the play, we see different forms of revolution. In 1969, the Young Lords are addressing immediate issues. Their free breakfast program aims to resolve immediate food scarcity, malnutrition, and hunger. The free daycare program benefits working mothers and fathers that need to get to a job tomorrow and cannot afford daycare fees. Their door-to-door lead poisoning and tuberculosis tests provide Puerto Rican, Latinx, and other citizens basic health tests that the city chooses not to provide. These targeted solutions are practical and efficient band aids to problems caused by systemic institutional racism.

Ten years later, in 1979, per the epilogue, the members of the Youngs Lords have dispersed from their tight-knit community. (This is an all-ages show, so the more gruesome details of the FBI’s COINTELPRO program’s repression of the Young Lords and other activist groups through intimidation, surveillance, arrest, and assassination are not part of the scope of this work.) They are living in different parts of the country, now working as bilingual doctors, teachers, lawyers, and politicians where the ideals that they pieced together in their youths can be put into practice to dismantle systemic violence and inequities from within those guilty systems. This work is slower. It isn’t the blast of messaging and action that wakes the public up, but through these examples, we see how multiple forms of revolution are appropriate and necessary.

And there are many roles to play. In Evelyn’s story, Abuela is leading the revolutionary charge publicly, sacrificing familial life, but building an alternate family by inspiring others and giving them strength to stand up to oppressive powers. We also see Evelyn’s mother maintaining her bodega, providing a stable income and home where Evelyn can feel secure. For Evelyn, her evolution isn’t complete, but a major chapter has been witnessed.

Review Panel:

Jason Baldinger is a poet from Pittsburgh. He’s the author of several books the most recent of which, the chaplet, Fumbles Revelations (Grackle and Crow) is available now, and the collection Fragments of a Rainy Season (Six Gallery Press) which is coming soon. You can hear Jason read his poems at jasonbaldinger.bandcamp.com as well as on a recently released cassette by the band Theremonster.

David Bernabo is a filmmaker, musician, dancer, visual artist, and writer, performing with the bands Watererer, Host Skull, and How Things Are Made; devising dances with his variable dance company, MODULES; and often collaborating with Maree ReMalia | merrygogo. He curates and produces work for the Ongoing Box imprint and co-curates the Lightlab Performance Series with slowdanger.

Vanessa Reseland is an actor and vocalist, who has performed all over the US and in the UK. After growing up in Pittsburgh, PA, Vanessa spent 12 years in New York City and three years in Los Angeles, working predominately in musical theatre as well as film and television, cabaret, and on new theatre works. She is a founding member of MOD Theatre Company in NYC/LA and has had her original music/artpop project, WIFEY, since 2012. She is currently very happy to be back in Pittsburgh.

Ariel Xiu is an artist whose works are meditations and performances on the multiplicity of human experience, the non-locatable, the interconnectivity of all things and their relationships — processed through the lens of an Asiatic lineage. She has performed in theatres including The New Hazlett and Kelly Strayhorn’s Alloy Studios, DIY house venues, and art galleries (Living Gallery and Baryshnikov Arts Center in NYC, SPACE in Pittsburgh). She is a former resident at The Space Upstairs and scholar of the annual Pulse Laser Workshop hosted by the HoloCenter at Ohio State University.

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