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Sunday, 07 July 2013 18:07

‘Soy Yo!’ (or I am me) radiates with personality and pride

Written by Tina Farmer
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‘Soy Yo!’ (or I am me) radiates with personality and pride / Peter Wochniak

Gitana Productions joyfully and effectively struts its stuff with the entertaining, educational and dance infused play "Soy Yo!' (or I am me). This original piece, written with attention to detail and heart by Mariah L. Richardson, celebrates "what it's like to be both Black and Latina" in middle America with genuine affection and an eye to educating all audiences about the diversity of the American experience.

The story features Promise, a young Afro-Latina student attending college near the geographic center of the U.S. Expressively portrayed by Jayden Reign, Promise is assigned a writing assignment focusing on how she is perceived by those around her, leading her to question how she perceives herself. Ms. Reign carries a good deal of the evening's dialogue in monologue fashion and handles the challenge well.

She expresses the passion and creativity of a college student balanced with the confusion of a young adult well and her character "just is" Afro-Latina. It's a fresh and thoughtful performance that can only resonate more powerfully with continued performance. As this is an original play, future rewrites should consider the transitions in and out of the educational information this character provided. At times, those sections sounded like grade-school recitations instead of newly discovered facts or stories passed and enhanced from generation to generation.

In contrast, Promise's several-times great grandmother Virreina is an able storyteller, and the history she contributes, while less factually specific, feels deeper by the strong personal connection established in her monologues. Artfully played by Chiffontae Ross with a genuine, spirited character that the audience naturally cheers for, Virreina's story is somewhat less resolved. This tension provides much of the contextual energy that propels the story forward.

Sisters Alma and Bianca, Promise's grandmother, have the only true dialogue in the show and these moments bristle with an emotional tension, creating an effective contrast to the other two stories. Jeanitta Perkins and Sheri Gonzalez, as Alma and Bianca, respectively, shine together in their performance. Each has moments when they are a bit brighter, a credit to the performers and director / choreographer Vivian Anderson Watt. The actors traverse a wide emotional path with a deft touch, while Watt shows a sure hand throughout the show, developing a solid foundation while affording the actors a chance to explore their character space.

The dances, with the salsa features directed by noted choreographer Carmen Guynn and Yonvalu and Hip Hop choreography by Watt, were integral to carrying both the strength of culture and the emotional timbre of the production. The way the dance and music shifted from traditional, straightforward representations of African and Latin dances to Harlem's social and cultural significance in the forties to the modern, blended Hip Hop of today was seamless and thoroughly engaging. The fact that the performers ranged widely in age and experience added another layer to the evening's tapestry-like presentation.

In addition, the choreographed entrances and exits of male cast members (and stagehands) Quincy Allen and Darrieon Perkins, added a lively humor and energy to the transitions, helping to keep the production flowing. I do not know if the director, choreographers or even the ensemble members themselves originally added this bit, but it worked for me and elicited building positive reaction as the show progressed. The young men were joined by Aaliyah Brown, Nia Canady, Kai Anne Tyler, Devonna Angel Walker and Stacey Williams in the strong and emotive cast of dancers and ensemble members.

I do think the show would have benefitted with a longer rehearsal schedule, but still found it quite engaging and evocative. The lighting and sound were, for the most part effective and smooth, although more technical rehearsal would have benefitted the performance and performers. The ensemble dancer in the opening Yonvalu number is to be commended for her grace and focused performance during multiple technical snafus the night I attended.

An additional significant element to the stage design, and one that reflects Gitana's commitment to education as well as entertainment, were large panels featuring portraits of many celebrated and lesser known but prominent Afro-Latinos. Portraits shown included: entertainers Eusebia Cosme, Esperanza Spalding, La Lupe, Mariah Carey, Tona la Negra, Don Omar, Jully Black, Gina Torres, Sammie Davis Jr. and Celia Cruz; athletes Victor Cruz and Cecilia Tate; journalist Gwen Ifill; as well as noted military leaders, activists, business and medical professionals and an image of a painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Informative, and interesting, "Soy Yo!" celebrates the diversity of the heartland through the lens of a young woman's college experience as an Afro-Latino, and is performed in English, with some Spanish phrases sprinkled throughout. The uncluttered, minimalist stage was easily transformed, via movement of key pieces and the addition or subtraction of a few props, to indicate changes in scene and location.

The Afro-Latina suite "Soy Yo!" runs through July 14th at the Kranzberg Arts Center in the Big Brothers Big Sisters Building Center. For more information:

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