Jonald Jude Reyes is a Writer, Performer & Director in Chicago, IL. His works have been performed in various theaters city-wide, including Stage 773, The Annoyance, and The Second City. In 2016, he was named Best of Stage Director by the Chicago Reader and was selected to the DirectorsLabChicago program. Learn more at http://www.jonaldjude.com.
Pictured: Nydia Castillo. Photo by Anthony Aicardi.
By Jonald Jude Reyes
As I had arrived early to the Humboldt Park area, I decided to grab a bite to eat at a local pizza joint not far from UrbanTheater Company. Sitting with my one slice of cheese pizza, a conversation between two locals loomed out loud. A gentleman had asked a woman with her daughter if they use to live in an apartment complex not far from there. He recognized them from doing construction within that building, to which she did recall. She continued the conversation by saying that she recently moved out because the rent was getting too expensive and the landlord wasn’t taking care of basic amenities. As their conversation continued on between Spanish and English, a stranger would have never guessed that they hadn’t known each other beforehand. As large of a city that Chicago is, there are these various pockets where everyone seems to know each other or can at least relate to each others’ upbringings.
When I arrived to the theater and walked into the space, it was like I had been transported to the apartment that this woman spoke of. Decorated with hung family pictures, a kitchen table with plates ready, and a giant portrait of Pope John Paul II, Caswell James’ set & Hillarie M. Shockley’s props appeared well lived and cozy – inviting for the audience. As ASHES OF LIGHT begins, right away, Playwright Marco Antonio Rodriguez brings us to the neighbor, Lydia (Karla López Galván-Raigoza) yelling from the building next door into Luz’s (Nydia Castillo) window. They hold a conversation on how Luz’s son, Julio Cesar (Sipriano Cahue), is finally coming home. And sure enough, as they bring his name up, we hear him stomping up a good number of stairs before finally entering. Lydia makes herself scarce while the welcome home between the mother & son is lukewarm. Castillo and Cahue play well together as Nydia delivers that motherly nagging energy and Sipriano knows to return fiery and grounded rebuttals. As Julio Cesar and his mother play catch up, we learn that he’s reluctantly back home because his father has passed away. Separated from Luz, she shows no initial sentiment about it, but as the play progresses, Castillo’s shifts in emotion are well paced and organic, allowing the audience a glimpse at her compassion.
Coincidental to my own personal experience earlier that evening, Luz tells Julio Cesar of how she and Lydia are the two residents who have been in that apartment complex the longest. She brings up thoughts of moving and applying for Section 8. This minor conversation highlights a bit of the political struggle in Chicago’s rent control issue. Here we also see the perspective of the world outside of their apartment, which plays well into the family dynamics of dealing with problems, fighting through them, and slowly coming to amends. Rodriguez shows these elements during the progress of the play and beautifully balances heated debates with moments of comic relief. Director Miranda Gonzalez, with her cast, understands the rhythm — knowing when to let the audience stay in a solemn moment and when to spike the energy back up thru an argument, a song, or a funny bit of dialogue.
In the second act, Luz’s sister, Divina (Maritza Nazario), is visiting to see her nephew, who’s actually at the funeral that day. Nazario and Castillo show a great contrast between sisters on a divided political spectrum. Nazario brings such a great comedic and playful energy to the second half of the play. It’s a wonderful layer for Gonzalez to use to her advantage. When Julio Cesar returns to the apartment from the funeral, the three reminisce of old times. The backstories are so rich, and the way Rodriguez weaves between family history and the present is organic. There’s also more music integrated in the second act with Spanish ballads & merengue, keeping a nice, natural looseness to the play. The actors sing & dance along, keeping the pure family ambiance alive, so that when arguments arise, we can relate to that old-school mentality of tough love. Castillo is truly exemplary through her character’s fiery mentality and, at times, physical outbursts.
The UrbanTheater Company notes as part of their mission, “Preserving the Puerto Rican and Humboldt Park voice for 12 years on Paseo Boricua,” and with ASHES OF LIGHT as part of their season, they truly encapsulate a neighborhood family environment in their space through the natural chemistry provided by their actors.
ASHES OF LIGHT runs through May 13th. For more information visit urbantheaterchicago.org.