Solo festivals have long been a feature of Chicago theater. Fillet of Solo, now under the curatorial hand of Lifeline Theatre, has presented the best in local monologists for years. It's on hiatus this year, which leaves a wide-open field for Yo Solo Theatre Festival, dedicated to work created by Latino artists. But the quality and variety of work on display would make Yo Solo a vital and welcome addition to the local theatrical menu any year.
It's a joint venture of Teatro Vista and Collaboraction, produced at the latter's home space by Sandra Delgado, a member of both companies as well as a regular presence onstage. Delgado premieres her own solo, "Para Graciela," on one of the three programs that make up the festival. Each program contains two original solos of about an hour each, and each program can be seen on its own. All three programs will run the last two days of the festival (Aug. 11-12).
As might be expected, the festival focuses on diversity, but not in the fuzzy feel-good, grant-proposal way. Yo Solo features artists whose roots encompass Colombia, Mexico, the Dominican Republic and all the way back to the Spanish "conversos" — Sephardic Jews who converted to Catholicism in the 14th and 15th centuries, some of whom found their way to New Spain in North America. It also features aesthetic variety: poetry, movement, personal storytelling and character-driven vignettes.
If you see it all in one day, as I did, the festival provides a nifty overview of themes common to many solo artists (family secrets, life as a marginalized citizen) as well as those with distinct Latino common threads of language, music, food, religion and kinship.
Two of the pieces are presented primarily or entirely in Spanish. Febronio Zatarain's "La Risa de Dios" (Program A) tracks a group of Latino immigrants mostly around Chicago, using public transit as a sort of road map through their lives. Video segments enliven the piece, and Zatarain's imagistic language (translated into English supertitles) weaves together stories of dispossession across generations. Allusion and poetry, along with a wordless movement prologue, feature prominently in Rey Andujar's "Antipoda" (Program C), in which Charles Bukowski, Federico Garcia Lorca, and Andujar's own writing are woven together in a piece performed almost entirely in Spanish, without supertitles.
Delgado's discerning curatorial eye has carefully paired the pieces along thematic lines. Zatarain's vignette-driven piece shares the bill with "Guera" by Lisandra Tena, whose sharply drawn character snapshots grow out of a "menu" audience members use to order various scenes, such as a high-octane comedy about guns and Latina stereotypes in movies, and a tender piece about a homesick Mexican cowboy.
Program B kicks off with KJ Sanchez's docu-memory piece "Highway 47." Sanchez, a hugely entertaining storyteller, well-served here by Lisa Portes' direction, recounts the tangled history of the Tome land grant — a vast tract originally deeded by Spain in the 18th century to a group of families in what is now New Mexico, which became the centerpiece of acrimonious litigation involving Sanchez's father beginning in the 1960s. She adroitly untangles a complicated thicket of legal proceedings, class conflict and family resentments.
Sanchez's story meshes rather well with Delgado's "Para Graciela," which takes a fictionalized look at her grandmother's life in Colombia. The early loss of Graciela's elegant "reina" of a mother provides the key to understanding her relationship with her emotionally restrained father. Like Sanchez, Delgado has a riveting stage presence, though this piece is more allusive in its writing and presentation.
The undoubted highlight of the festival is Juan Francisco Villa's "Empanada for a Dream." If John Leguizamo's "Freak" had a body count, it would be a bit like Villa's harsh, but often quite funny and touching portrait of his Colombian family on the Lower East Side, whose love of food, music and celebration covered up its roots in drug-related violent crime on a horrifying scale. Villa's anguish at his family's evolution from "bettering each other to bettering themselves" is at the heart of our current, but evergreen, national debates about what it means to be American and how much responsibility we owe to each other. It's a solo that connects with a wide gallery of characters and concerns, and it deserves a longer outing after Yo Solo wraps.
Through Aug. 12 at Collaboraction, Flat Iron Building, 1579 N. Milwaukee Ave.; $15 or $35 for festival pass at 312-226-9633 or yosolofestival.comCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun