Maria Candelaria (left) is Belicia, Biko Eisen-Martin (center) is Fukú and Vanessa Cota is Lola in the Campo Santo/Intersection for the Arts production of Fukú Americanus, a theatrical adaptation of Junot Diaz’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Photos by James Faerron
Diaz novel finds vibrant life as stage `Fukú’
Junot Diaz’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao presents all kinds of challenges, first to the reader who has to navigate a fractured time frame, footnotes almost as involved as the novel itself and shifting narration.
Good luck to anyone attempting to adapt this convoluted novel into anything other than the rich novel it is. Playwright Jose Rivera is taking a crack at the screenplay, but San Francisco’s own Campo Santo has beaten him to the punch with the first adaptation: a stage work called Fukú Americanus, now at Intersection for the Arts.
Co-directors Sean San José and Marc Bamuthi Joséph have wrestled with the novel and come out, for the most part, on top. The stage version retains a certain literary feel – indeed, much of the language comes directly from the book – but it crackles with emotional life and gives characters dimension and shading they didn’t have on the page.
The six-member cast is excellent, especially in their heated emotional exchanges. I was blown away by Anna Maria Luera, who shifts from playing a Dominican Republic grandmother, La Inca, a fierce, passionate woman, to playing a smart but ditzy New Jersey girl named Anna Obregon, who can’t stop talking about her boyfriend Manny and his prodigious endowments.
Carlos Aguirre (seen at right in the blue shirt with Brian Rivera and Biko Eisen-Martin), who provides the dynamic soundscape as the resident DJ/beat boxer, emerges as the show’s most engaging character, a college-age lady player named Yunior, who keeps forgetting to hide his inner depths with his callow exterior.
The 2 ½-hour show gets off to a rousing start with Biko Eisen-Martin as a dancer/narrator/observer telling us all about the Dominican Republic and the notion of “fukú,” a kind of doom or curse that intricately weaves its way through Dominican politics and spirituality. We are all dealing with fukús of one kind or another, we’re told, and this story’s family is dealing with a doozy.
After suffering under the rule of Dominican dictator Trujillo, a young mother and her two children flee the Caribbean for New Jersey. In the ensuing years, mom Belicia (a powerful Maria Candelaria) has raised two children: bright, rebellious Lola (Vanessa Cota) and overweight sci-fi dork Oscar (Brian Rivera).
After the rousing intro, and after we meet the central family, Fukú stalls for about a half an hour while we get, essentially, the same information over and over. Oscar is such a nerd he’ll never get a girlfriend. Belicia is dealing with cancer and a rancorous relationship with Lola.
But then Oscar meets Anna (the aforementioned Luera), and the plot kicks in. From that plotline we move to a clash between mother and daughter that results in a runaway scenario. From there, we follow Oscar to college, where, after a suicide attempt, he becomes roommates with Yunior, who tries to make like Henry Higgins and turn Oscar into something resembling a non-loser.
Directors San José and Joséph imbue the story with rhythm, movement and flow, but somehow the show never quite breaks the literary bond the way last year’s Campo Santo hit, Angry Black White Boy, based on Adam Mansbach’s novel of the same name, managed to do. While that show felt like a fully realized theatrical experience, this one still seems propelled by forces outside the theater.
That said, Diaz’s story of the immigrant experience, the American teenage experience and the profound mother-daughter connection emerges from the stage with clarity and force. At its best, Fukú Americanus finds the theatrical wow in Oscar Wao.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Campo Santo’s Fukú Americanus continues an extended run through July 12 at Intersection for the Arts, 446 Valencia St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$25 on a sliding scale. Call 415-626-2787, ext. 109 or visit www.theintersection.org for information.