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Imprisoned brother vies for, wins attention in ‘Bronx’

‘El Grito del Bronx’ crowds stage with merry-go-round, but emotion never spins out of control

In the very first scene of “El Grito del Bronx,” light illuminates the center of the stage as Lulu, wearing a white wedding dress, glides toward center stage, approaching a frame.

She contemplates this simulation of a mirror and gazes through it as an unknown man, eventually revealed to be her brother Papo, emerges from the far left of the stage, walking straight through the mirror. They start slow dancing, but as they rotate in the center of the stage — which spins in a slow circle — Papo’s grip on Lulu’s head and waist suddenly intensifies. They struggle until Lulu finally breaks free.

As the scene exemplifies, “El Grito” centers on the relationship between siblings Magdalena Colon, also known as Lulu — played by Jo’Nella Ellerbe ’15 — and Jesus Colon, or Papo, played by Kevin Kelly ’15. Though the play opens with Lulu’s wedding day, the story begins with Lulu and Papo’s childhood days during the 1970s and continues to 1991.

This timeline comprises Lulu’s relationship with Ed, a Jewish reporter played by Fletcher Bell ’16, while living in the Bronx, N.Y., and her subsequent move to Connecticut. Meanwhile, Papo, incarcerated for having committed 18 murders, sits in a death row prison cell in Ohio.

The set is divided into three main parts: The far left primarily serves as the prison cell and the far right as Ed and Lulu’s home. In the center is the merry-go-round, which functions as both part of a playground and the visiting room of the Ohio prison, among other roles. In regard to the show’s set, dramaturg Jose Samuel Clair notes in the program, “Each place intersects and develops perspective on other locations. The story bleeds, cries, and emotes with no pat closure, no formal forgiveness.”

Though the thought behind the set may be consistent with the theme of the show, it can leave the audience confused in the midst of the non-linear narrative. Often the merry-go-round spins rapidly, which can help add to the chaos on stage, but the actors’ voices get lost amid the cacophony.

Kelly succeeds in dominating the stage by fully embracing this mad, violent, overpowering character. His mannerisms are especially convincing — the way he licks his lips, sticks his tongue out or bites his upper lip, his eyes darting as he speaks. He remains on stage even during Ed and Lulu’s scenes, shifting on the bed in his cell, kneeling or leaning and subtly banging against the chains.

In one scene, while Ed and Lulu sit on their bed on the merry-go-round and converse, Kelly approaches and starts turning the set piece. In spite of Papo’s aggressive nature and regardless of her haunted childhood memories, Lulu cares deeply about Papo, sometimes at the expense of her relationship with Ed.

The story is complex, and considering the amount of ambience and chaos on stage, it can be easy to get lost. Audience members might find themselves trying to piece the story together as it progresses. Nevertheless, what is more important are the raw emotions expressed by the actors — emotions the audience might not even immediately grasp. The experience will leave you with the cry of the Bronx echoing in your ears, and its pains and sorrows gnawing in your stomach.

“El Grito del Bronx” runs through April 10 in Leeds Theater, Tuesday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m.


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