Writer Julissa Contreras admits it: She was worried about all the Spanish. Her ambitious off-Broadway debut play, Vámonos (now playing at Intar Theatre until May 21), is a layered look at one Dominican American family living in the Bronx right before and right after the events of 9/11.
It tackles heavy topics like faith, racism, and patriotism through a Dominican lens and shows no fear. A good part of it also happens to be exclusively in Spanish. Instead of being an obstacle for audiences, however, the specificity and powerhouse performances turn the show into a kind of invitation, to not only see the truth of this family, but find truth in themselves, as well.
As the production was being mounted, conversations around accessibility and the idea of using subtitles both in English and in Spanish to ensure a diverse audience would be able to follow the rich narrative, came to a head. “I felt like I was the lone soldier who was worried,” says Contreras with a laugh. Conscious of showcasing a full cast of Black Dominican actors portraying complex Black Dominican characters, Contreras didn’t just want the show to be a mirror, but a looking glass.
“It was important that non-Spanish speakers understand the story because they're meant to receive this story, to meet us Dominicans,” she says. “It’s not just about Dominicans feeling like they saw themselves, it’s that everyone saw the Dominicans.”
Contreras, who was born in Harlem and raised in the Bronx, says she was surprised by the support and encouragement she received from the Intar theater staff to let the show be its most authentic version of itself, subtitles be damned. Intar Theatre, with its long history as the country’s oldest theater company dedicated to developing and producing plays by Latiné artists, was the perfect home for Contreras and Vámonos.
Artistic Director Lou Moreno was one of its strongest advocates. “No one ever asked me if I was going to be OK to just sit in English-speaking plays my whole life,” he says. “So my position was like, I really don't give a fuck.” The show was strong enough on its own, he insisted, and whether you speak English or Spanish or both, audience members would leave with their own version of the story, some people with more, and some people with a little less. “And that’s OK,” he says. “Everybody gets a little bit extra depending on where you sit in a theater.”
In the end, the company hosted a show for a test audience and based on feedback, Contreras made small tweaks to ensure there was enough context for everyone to understand. “We rode forward with that, knowing that the body language and the set and all the other wonderful elements that make the show a reality we're going to invite everyone in.”
Contreras sent the invitations out, but the hosts of the party that is Vámonos undoubtedly are the two actresses, Cindy Peralta and Yohanna Florentino, whose towering performances, almost completely in Spanish, showcase the power of acting, no matter what language you speak. As Juana and Anna, respectively, the duo play sisters who have immigrated to New York City and are raising families. The two are so similar, but worlds apart, as assimilation has taken them down different roads.
Anna is the rule follower, the patriot, the more conservative of the two who has just left the Bronx to the suburbs of New Jersey with her husband and kids. Juana, who is a single mother, and still in the Bronx, is more inclined to look to her past, indulge her niece in native mysticism, and maybe have one too many drinks. Then, after the 9/11 attacks, everything changes. “The beauty of Vámonos is that it shows us that one plus one does not always equal two,” says Florentino.
Florentino, who was born in the Dominican Republic and is now a prolific off-Broadway performer, says she identified with these women in a profound way, but had never been able to bring her craft as an actress to a role like this one. “In doing the work, I came to realize, it’s been inside me all along, I just never had the opportunity to share it.”
Peralta, who was born in New York, but is also of Dominican descent, says Juana and Anna’s story is the story of her family. Of her parents, uncles and aunts who have come to the United States and had to reconcile resisting change, holding onto their language like a security blanket, and also deal with feeling intense patriotism for this new country and all the baggage that came with that. “These are the stories that are difficult to tell,” she says. “But the importance of showing these stories is that these women went through a lot on their own and had very little to no support at all.”
The task of communicating these complex identities to an audience who on a surface level could not identify with Juana and Anna or speak their language was paramount to both actresses.
“That’s our craft,” says Peralta. “We have to portray the story no matter what, even though you may not understand the language. We, as actors, have to go above and beyond in a sense to show people that language is not necessarily a barrier here.”
There’s language in the way Florentino dances with her husband in the opening scene, in the way the sisters fight over who they should be praying to, and in the way they hold each other when they receive horrible news from abroad. It is a pair of expressive physical performances that are both natural and supercharged, all at once. It knows no language.
It was important for Florentino that she could share the show with her Black and Latinx friends who aren’t fluent in Spanish, uniting the diaspora through the show. Writer Contreras lets out an “Mmm!” of approval at Florentino’s words as we chat from the set of Vámonos at Intar Theatre. “Through specificity you find universality,” she says, hopeful and grateful for her all-Dominican cast, her half-English/half-Spanish show, and the theater company that gave her the space to make it into a reality.
Now that the show is up, Spanglish and all, garnering an overwhelming positive response from audience members of all backgrounds, Contreras says the great work to spread meaningful change across the theater industry continues. “How do we make stories like Vámonos the new American classics?”