What Modesto “Flako” Jimenez misses the most about his days as a cabdriver in New York City are the conversations with his passengers, fellow cab drivers, and even the silent riders who just wanted to get from point A to point B.
“Even that gave me the moment to paint my story. Like, why are you so mad today? What in America, what in the system has you that you have to jump into a cab because you can’t take the train? What are the realities, right? I’m able to create a poem around that and think about our day-to-day,” said the Dominican Republic-born, Bushwick, New York-raised actor, playwright, poet, and community activist during an interview via Zoom. Jimenez used those stories and conversations as fodder for his one-man show Taxilandia. He is bringing the stage version of the show to the Den Theatre in Wicker Park this weekend as part of Destinos: the 6th Chicago International Latino Theater Festival.
Taxilandia—Stage Experience10/12-10/15: Thu-Sat 8 PM, Sun 3 PM; Den Theatre, 1331 N. Milwaukee, destinosfest.org and thedentheatre.com, $31 general, $26 students/seniors/industry. Presented in English.Armonía10/19-10/22: Thu-Sat 8 PM, Sun 3 PM; 1331 N. Milwaukee, destinosfest.org and thedentheatre.com, $31 general, $26 students/seniors/industry. In Spanish with English subtitles.
The show traditionally takes place inside a cab: “You meet me in front of my house and then I drive you around my neighborhood, telling you about gentrification but really talking about colonialism. At the red lights, we have the tough talk because you are able to ask me anything. The show also happens in the car in other states; we have a car in San Diego and we’re starting the discussion to have one in Washington, D.C. In Chicago, it’s all about the stage.”
And the schools. Jimenez will be sitting down with students in Chicago to discuss the language around gentrification before the show. The salons, as Jimenez calls these encounters, give him the opportunity to compare notes with other communities.
Much like low-income neighborhoods have been displaced by gentrification, so has cab culture been displaced by the gig economy and rideshare services like Uber and Lyft. “What’s crazy is that it was transferred to delivery services [in New York],” explained Jimenez. “You can see the hub of community from all these migrants forming in front of McDonald’s and all these fast food spots and all the local Dominican and Spanish restaurants in the neighborhood. . . . Weirdly, technology has activated all these little pockets but has also destroyed the cab world. The old dispatcher, who used to make money from one space, now has to have an app that gives cab drivers other locations.”
As cofounder of the ¡Oye! Group alongside videographer Kevin Torres, Jimenez and a team of four artists offer an impressive number of multidisciplinary programs to the Bushwick community, including a free poetry workshop for kids and adults; an arts education program for incarcerated youth; a program dedicated to introducing young writers to Shakespeare’s work (even adapting one of his plays by adding modern slang); a summer arts festival at a local park; and free seasonal Pilates sessions. He sees their organization as an incubator for artists, students, and community members of all ages, from which the next generation of artists and activists will emerge.
“It’s always good to keep building,” said Jimenez. “I went to one of the young kids I taught when he was in high school and graduated from Hunter and said, ‘Sammy, go teach at one of the jails with the Shakespeare program. I know you know it because we have worked since high school with you. And now you can actually go teach it.’ And he’s like, ‘Wait, you’re paying me this much to just be a teacher, bro?’ And it’s just beautiful showing the moments that can happen outside of the system with their creativity, and like letting them know that there’s actual finances in here that can take care of that creativity. It’s always figuring out how to disrupt the system.”
The cast of Armonía, presented by the Puerto Rico Theatre Lab 10/19-10/22 at the Den as part of the Destinos festival. Credit: Courtesy the artist
Although not as neighborhood-based as the ¡Oye! Group, Puerto Rico Theatre Lab also seeks to develop a new generation of artists front and backstage. Launched in January 2020—a few months before the pandemic was declared and Puerto Rico went into shutdown—by Edgardo T. Soto and Alexandra Liz Cedeño Calero as a vehicle to attract a younger audience to Puerto Rican stages and present the work of emerging playwrights from Puerto Rico and Latin America, the Lab has been nurturing what could very well be the next generation of actors, alongside wardrobe, stage, light, and sound designers on the island.
“I did my masters in production,” said Soto during a Zoom interview. “To me, what happens backstage is where the magic really takes place. When you go to a play and you can’t quite figure out why you really liked it, that’s when we know we were successful. The energy from the actors, the director, the design, all works hand in hand so that when you leave the theater you feel that you liked everything. It is important for us to address those spaces. When you realize that theater is so much more than acting, a whole new world opens up for you as a theater lover. We want to be that space where, if you haven’t had any professional theatrical experience, you will acquire it while at the same time giving you the opportunity to experiment.”
Puerto Rico Theatre Lab will be presenting their first production, Armonía, also at the Den, from October 19-22 as part of Destinos. Directed by Soto and written by Ricardo André Lugo, Armonía focuses on a different kind of menage a trois: Vincent brings his two ex-partners, Daniel and Lucía, to couples therapy and tells them that he can’t live without both of them, proposing a throuple.
“It’s a play that explores the possibility of love. Are we capable of loving two people at the same time? That’s the question this play asks, independently from the characters’ sexual preferences. It’s not really about sexuality. It’s about the structures that impose on us the idea that we can only love one person at a time, and that we are really capable of loving more than one person at the same time and how that translates to our daily lives, which are so heteronormative,” explained Soto.
An earlier version of the play premiered in San Juan in 2020 before the shutdown. “We recast the play and even redesigned it in terms of lights, set, even how it was promoted. How could I bring a totally different experience to the audience who originally saw it, even though the text was the same? We are not the owners of the text; it will remain alive and I hope that in three or four years, a different company approaches the playwright to stage it and we get to see a different version from ours.”
Like many other theater companies in the United States, Puerto Rico Theater Lab shifted to a virtual model to survive during the pandemic: “It ended up being very lucrative. People paid to see [the three plays they produced virtually during this period]. I think the theater community was hoping that this virtual element would stick around in some sort of hybrid form. The reality is that people stopped responding to the virtual format. The post-pandemic years have proved that people prefer to see theater live.
“I do think that people are looking for experiences,” Soto continued. “Audiences are looking for the new. It’s not enough to passively sit down, it’s not only about storytelling, it’s how we involve our audiences in what we are doing, how do we offer them something they haven’t seen before.”