Body covered in skin-tight fishnet (black, of course), shoulders bedecked in a cape of shaking circles of metallic colors, beard sparkling with glitter to match his highlighted eyes, and high tops that light up as he prances about, Baruch Porras Hernandez enters the intimate setting of Z Below announcing to his cheering fans:
“Hellooooo, everyone! I’m just your friendly, neighborhood, chubby, queer, Mexican immigrant; and I’m here to take your jobs! All your fucking jobs! They’re mine now! Thank you! Gracias!”
And as the rather-large-sized forty-something continues confidently to dance around and point to all of us whose jobs he as an immigrant has taken, two barely twenty-something twinks whose thongs-only wear reveals cute abs in the front and cuter buns in the back spritely cavort about. By now, the hoots and hollers are loud and constant from the small but piping-hot audience as the creator and principal performer of Love in the Time of Piñatas continues to gather steam.
He is readying himself and us for his oft-compelling, oft-hilarious, and in the end, quite moving story as a gay kid of color who moves early in age from Mexico to the mostly white Bay Area. Developed over several years with support from Oasis, Brava Theatre, the National Queer Arts Festival, and Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Ground Floor Residency, Love in the Time of Piñatas is now presented at Z Below by its creator in conjunction with Epic Party Theatre, a local theatre company formed to provide artists and artisans of color a place to work and perform.
Baruch proceeds to take us through a number of life chapters, their titles projected on a small, cloud-shaped piñata hanging among a number of other piñatas on ceiling and floor ranging from Wonder Woman and Bat Man to Dora the Explorer (part of Tanya Oreallana’a scenic consultation). Before our star bursts onto the stage, we have already heard a voiced-over story about a large, round (and self-declared “fat”) pinata of many colors whose multi-colored spikes look like birthday hats coming from her body. She has appeared with the help of our two go-go-ers (Corey Baker and Christopher Garay-Perez), telling through the din of increasingly loud music her story of escape, survival, and a paper-maiched fight to the death with a horde of Trump piñatas. The ten-to-fifteen-minute prelude to the evening unfortunately goes too long and becomes increasingly difficult to follow as the music increases in volume.
But once Baruch is center stage, the energy of the evening stays disco-beat high as long as he sticks to telling his chaptered story of a life about a boy from Toluca, Mexico whose favorite color is purple, who adores Rainbow Brite, and who early on “finds it depressing to live in a world where everyone is constantly rolling their eyes at your existence.” Chapter One, “When I Was a Color Kid,” recounts his fifth birthday party when all he wanted was everyone to come in some shade of rainbow and to live the rest of his life (as far as a five-year-old could see into the future) with the Rainbow Brite piñata his mother gives him. Not all goes to his plan – at least not without a few gay-kid, big-time drama scenes when he confronts bullies with bats ready to annihilate his BFF, Brite, to get the candy inside her.
The five-year-old self that tells this story does so – like each of the ensuing chapters of his life – in language, gestures, and overall approach that are meant “for mature audiences” (as the program warns) and speak more in Baruch’s adult voice than his kid one. In this and a subsequent story when he was twelve as a guest at another birthday party, the flying f-words that his younger self spews to any and all around him – including his mom – reduce some of the stories’ credibility (i.e., hard to conceive a young kid talking to his mom that way and surviving to tell the tale) while the overall content and final message are in fact quite convincing and captivating.
Baruch’s life unfolds as a mixture of a young queer kid’s discoveries and difficulties and a family’s experiences as immigrants into a country where a mother who was on a career path of being a singer, actor, and writer and where a father who was an engineer each work day and night in East Bay jobs of housekeeper and janitor, respectively. His mother’s beautiful singing voice becomes the moving climax of the birthday party twelve-year-old Baruch reluctantly attends at the home of his school’s prime bully of kids of color like himself. When she appears as a Raggedy Ann doll to entertain the bully’s five-year-old sibling and other young birthday guests – much to an embarrassed Baruch’s surprise and horror – Baruch learns just how much his clown-dressed mother truly loves him.
As is often the case for queer kids brought up in cultures where machismo rules, Baruch’s relationship with his dad takes a turn for the worst as his teen years progress. The many years of his father’s journey to overcome his “struggling, suffering in a battle with his Macho-Mexican side” where “the anger that was probably beat into him [and] shoved down this throat” took its terrible toll on the entire family, is recounted by Baruch, with an inspiring, heart-warming ending that is unexpected both by him and by us.
The stories of the skin-showing, much-glittered Baruch (whose capes and nets are fabulously designed by Pat N Leather) are not without some that are sweaty and steaming with their riotous raunch. Often aided by the gyrating go-go’s around and behind him, Baruch never hesitates to release his gayness proudly and defiantly. At one point he describes in deeply probing detail encounters with the underside cheeks of a one-night fling. As his tongue illustrates the evening’s events, he remembers his parallel, tearful assessment of his state of life in a world where climate change is killing the world, where he realizes he will never be able as an over-sized man to turn cartwheels, and where the president of his new country is “an orange bag of racist puke.” Needless to say, the butt-bare BF of the night wonders, “Are you OK?”
As a published poet, Baruch takes a few time outs at the mike to recite/read one of his poems. These are overall effective, with one dedicated to Mexican artist Frida Kahlo also introducing his obsessive love of donuts and their role in saving his life at one point.
Baruch Porras Hernandez’s Love in the Time of Piñatas is at its enthralling best when he adheres to his life story. A few side ventures (like the too-long, piñata opening) lengthen the evening with little gain and some energy loss. That is especially true for one segment entitled “Ask the Immigrant” where the performer seeks to educate us about some well-known and lesser-known facts about the current state of immigrants in America. The goal of this sidetrack is worthy enough; the means does not work so well.
With some editing by the creator/performer and tighter directing by an otherwise creative Richard A. Mosqueda, the show that is touted in the program as “a work-in-progress” and is announced as eighty minutes (but on opening night clocked in nearer one-hundred with no intermission) can be even more compelling as an important contribution to stages that rarely (if ever) host queer, immigrant performers. Baruch Porras Hernandez brings a bubbling, bombastic personality bigger than life and a story about his life that is probing and pointed, baring and ballsy, humorous and heartfelt. His is a prime example of THE American story of the twenty-first century.
Rating: 3 E
Love in the Time of Piñatas continues through December 22, 2019 in production by Epic Party Theatre at Z Below, 470 Florida Street, San Francisco, CA. Tickets are available online at http://epicpartytheatre.org or at http://www.zspace.org/.
Photo Credits: Robbie Sweeney