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City of Songs by Antonio Peraza

Posted by on Saturday, November 28, 2015 in Blog posts, , .

As I head into Neely Auditorium on the closing night of City of Songs, or Ciudad de los Cantos, I have one thought on my mind: I’m late. I rush in at twenty after 7, five minutes later than I should have been to usher that night. Lucky, I talk to the house manager and he says it’s not a problem: I’m here with time to spare to greet show-goers as they enter. He hands me some playbills and I take my station in front of the stage left stairs. As a dues paying member of Vanderbilt University Theatre, I find myself very at home in this theatre. I chat with the run crew before they open house, and I greet friends and strangers alike as they go to find their seats. When the doors close and lights dim, I take my seat, excited for the performance in front of me.

City of Songs is part of a growing trend which amplifies the voices of minorities. The Nashville represented by the cast is not the Nashville that comes to most people’s minds. Typical associations include, but are not limited to, the Country Music Hall of Fame, growing housing market, Dolly Parton, Southern Style Food, Cowboy Boots, etc. This conventional image of Nashville is very white-washed, and I tend to agree with the lead character Isidor Firari, played by Michael Maerlender, when he said “I hear people call it Cashville or Nashvegas. I do not like this. They are ugly names for my beautiful city.” The play tells the story an immigrant Albanian family who own a restaurant  in Nashville and the people to whmo they are connected, celebrating their successes and their struggles, with a special emphasis on character’s racial and ethnic identities. Current social movements such as Black Lives Matter and the push for intersectionality in Feminist and MOGII (Marginalized Orientations, Gender Identities, and Intersex) communities have prioritized the voices of People of Color in media, academia, and politics. This show follows this trend by criticizing recent changes in Nashville and bringing to light how they hurt the people of color.

The show pushed the audience to challenge their idea of Nashville particularly through its use of language. When Will Sox’s character Reynaldo sang an emotional lullaby to his mother who had Alzheimer’s in Spanish, it was one of the most powerful moments in the show. The language elevated the sense of reality and allowed the audience to see two characters connect through a language other than English. Often times, language limits and defines our reality, and it’s commonly said that Spanish is one of the best languages to communicate emotion. The frequent use of Albanian terminology by the Firari Family and their own approach of speaking English felt researched rather than stereotyped, making the experience feel authentic. The audience might not have realized they were learning anything when messages such as what makes Albania different from Greece and the history of oppression in Cuba and Syria are sang and performed in very personal stories. Plays like this are not simply a multicultural experience for a (predominately white) audience, but also an important example of how aspects of theatre can educate those around us.

While this show was very diverse in terms of characters and somewhat diverse in terms of cast, there were still aspects of it which fell short. LGBT identities elicit laughs in the show. Early in the show, Aurora, played by Regan Shea teases her brother Fatos, played by Harrison Kenum, that he should get a girlfriend – or a boyfriend. Later, Sky, played by Chelsea Ankenbrandt, makes a quick side comment that she doesn’t really “swing that way”, then pauses for a laugh. While the inclusion of queer identities is a step in the right direction, playing them for laughs without allowing for any depth makes the “inclusion” more damaging than uplifting to the community. This is not good allyship. One joke in particular struck me as harmful. There was a bit in the scene where Rebel (Katie Gillet), Cruz (Akash Majumdar), and Sky enter together talking about a woman who auditioned for their band. They call her “sideburns girl” and the two female members of the band tease (?) the male character for getting her number. He goes on to say that he’ll bring a razor and shave her face before he kisses her. This bit perpetuates one unrealistic beauty standard: that women must be hairless. This comment is inherently sexist, but it is also transphobic. Many transwomen struggle to stay clean shaven in order to pass and making fun of women with facial hair is particularly harmful. While the show’s effort to be inclusive comes from good intentions, they failed at providing adequate representation and perpetuated transphobia through their humor.

It is important to discuss in what ways the show portrayed a multicultural experience, and  this show is a step in the right direction for VU Theatre. They often use shows to provide relevant commentary to movements on campus and reflect greater trends in the US, such as the play Much Ado About Nothing performed in the fall of 2014 which critiqued rape culture at Vanderbilt. Next semester they plan to perform How to End Poverty in 90 Minutes, which will engage dialogue on poverty in Nashville and donate $6000 to various charities over the course of the show. I would like to see the theatre company engage the queer community and address the Black Lives Matter movement through productions in the following season. I think City of Songs started a dialogue about the experiences of People of Color on the stage that I don’t want to see die out.

 

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3 Comments on “City of Songs by Antonio Peraza”

Antonio,

I appreciate the fact that you were able to carry the perspective of LGBT community while observing City Of Songs. Your response is most characterized by emboldened ideals that establish a clear sense of point of view. The fact that you are socially embedded within the VUT community does not make you reluctant to take a strong stance against some of the choices made by the writers, and that is unusually virtuous. I for one gained something from reading your response. While I too cringe at the overzealous gender joke, I do not integrate these sentiments into my values and identity to the extent you have, and I think your post challenges me to change this habit.

In terms of how I received the play, I thought that it was intriguing to see something produced directly by the Vanderbilt community. The fact that it is “home-made” allows people to gain incite into the choices of Vanderbilt actors and writers. I thought that the greatest strength of the play was the manipulated intimacy of the characters, highlighted by the band’s impromptu song making. Something about the scene with the band’s first good attempts at music making is relatable and heartwarming. God I miss my friends!

Alex Varnhagen on November 29th, 2015 at 6:59 pm

I really appreciated this post, specifically because I feel it does an excellent job of critiquing some of the short comings of City of Songs in a respectful manner. When I left Neely Auditorium after viewing the play I thought it was well done, and did not really think about it much beyond the surface level of what was presented. Antonio’s post really allowed me to think more critically about the play, and the messages that it conveyed. I never considered the ways in which this play was not inclusive to certain minority experiences, yet after reading this I have been able to examine City of Songs from a more informed lens.
One point Antonio makes that really struck me is the idea that City of Songs presented a picture of Nashville that does not often immediately come to mind. I agree that it is easy to think of Nashville as high rise apartments, and Broadway, while failing to consider the less idealized aspects of the city, such as the homelessness and poverty that is present. In thinking about theatre from this perspective it easier to see the necessity of plays such as City of Songs in challenging its audience to think critically about the world of the play. City of Songs is a particularly interesting case study as it is set in Nashville, and thus better allows us as students to critique the city we live in and evaluate the change we wish to see.

Jasmine Reid on December 2nd, 2015 at 9:32 pm

Antonio, your post was great! I really valued how eager you were for such a great play, even though you were late (just joking with you). You are very knowledgeable about the play’s significance on Nashville specifically but also on the country as a whole. You brought in knowledge of communities tied to social movements such as Black Lives Matter and LGBT. You are very right in theatre’s power to present ideas and educate the audience on cultures people may not be exposed to. City of Songs did a very just portrayal of not just this Albanian family or the immigrant experience, but what it is like to be of a different ethnicity and struggle through hard times. It shows us that Nashville is a marvelous city, but it is not marvelous everywhere or all the time. As you say, plays like this provide “relevant commentary,” and it can help us challenge the status quo.
I too thought highly of the cast’s research and dedication to accurately portray a culture of a foreign community. I do feel the “sideburns girl” bit was slightly forced and potentially damaging to the identities of those in the LGBT community, but their use of it was pure comical. I think it showed the kind of banter that really does happen among college students. The bit with the southern man at the gas station had me laughing even when he was making comments about black people, and I am black. It all comes down to the sense of humor, and the fact that its use and presentation is to give the audience something to think about after the laughs. We agree there was no malicious intent and its use as comedy should decrease, but a theatre production should tailor to the audience somewhat. Overall, great post, I could tell you were very invested in the play.

Onyebuchi Okeke on December 7th, 2015 at 11:11 am

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