“The Elaborate Vision of Kristoffer Diaz”
By Benjamin Ortiz, for
Café Latino Lifestyle Magazine
April/May 2010

Once upon a time, “in hip-hop’s earliest days, there was a Boricua — I’m sorry, you might not know what that means — there was a Puerto Rican woman who could rock a microphone in English and Spanish with only herself as her DJ.”
That’s how Kristoffer Diaz kicks off his latest play in production like a hip-hop fairy tale, following up on “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity,” his first-ever full-length work to get produced. Chicagoland critics and audiences loved its 2009 run at Victory Gardens Theater, and now New York City is producing it off-Broadway. Simultaneously, Diaz comes home to the very first play he ever wrote, “Welcome to Arroyo’s,” at the American Theatre Company (ATC).
“There was a lot I needed to figure out when I was in college and then graduate school about my place in Latino culture,” says Diaz in a phone conversation from Minneapolis, where he currently resides. “I think ‘Arroyo’s’ is the play that, as I was writing it, really helped me figure all that out.”
While “Deity” mixed geopolitics and searing racial satire with authentic, live, pro-style wrestling on-stage, “Arroyo’s” will transform the ATC into a party lounge, with live DJs, interactive freestyling, breakdancing and actual graffiti writing. Diaz’s story will spill out from the stage and involve the local hip-hop community, artists and more than 800 high-school students, through the ATC’s American Mosaic program, which works the production into Chicago Public School’sninth-grade literature curriculum.
This program was one reason Diaz chose to work with the ATC. He considers his play to be about family and community foremost. He says it’s “the first time I wrote something where I started to understand the value of not just having characters sitting in a living room talking to each other, but having them break the fourth wall, having them interact with the audience Â… with ‘Arroyo’s’ or with ‘Chad,’ I think of those in a lot of ways as musicals Â… in ‘Arroyo’s,’ instead of singing, they’ll play some music, they’ll rap or they’ll use some hip-hop techniques.”
Born in Manhattan and raised mostly in Yonkers, Diaz sees himself as a suburban kid who roamed the metro-NYC area, visiting relatives in the Bronx and his grandmother on the Lower East Side. These places and their pan-cultural populations inspire his characters, settings and the overall swagger of the dialogue. In “Arroyo’s,” the main locale is a bar whose owner considers it “the nerve center” of the neighborhood, a sort of community center with alcohol.
Owner Alejandro Arroyo tries to keep the business running, while his sister Molly tears through the neighborhood with teen angst and an itchy spray-paint finger. Suburban egghead Lelly Santiago shows up at the bar to validate her own existence as an assimilated academic by proving that a Puerto Rican woman named Reina Rey helped create hip-hop. (Reina Rey also may or may not have been the Arroyos’ mom, who quit rapping to raise a family and run the bodega that Alejandro later turned into a bar.) “Arroyo’s” B-boy hip-hoppers Trip and Nel infuse the action with commentary like an urban Greek chorus, rewinding and re-mixing scenes with sampled and scratched dialogue.
ATC artistic director PJ Paparelli calls Diaz a “fusion artist” whose work fully realizes the company’s commitment to American stories that engage the question of what it means to be American in a global, multicultural country. “‘Arroyo’s’ is a working-class story,” Paparelli adds. “Whether you’re Latino, whether you’re white Â… I think the idea of embracing who your family is and figuring out who you are is something we all go through.” Paparelli also points out that rehearsals in Logan Square will open the doors to the community on Fridays for spoken-word open mics, while the actual run will feature post-performance DJ sets.
ATC ensemble member and “Arroyo’s” director Jaime Castañeda — a Texas native who bops around between Chicago, New York and Los Angeles — says Diaz is creating a new and different kind of Latino theatre that taps into our own diversity as multiracial, multicultural people. Castañeda worked with Diaz on a smaller-scale mounting of the play in New York, but he says the ATC production will fully realize all of the challenging technical, artistic and spatial aspects of the work, down to creating a party atmosphere that pulls the crowd in. Similar to the splashy wrestling spectacle of “Deity,” “Arroyo’s” hip-hop exposition will be “like sitting at a rock concert or a hip-hop show,” says Castañeda.
Like Castañeda, Eddie Torres thinks Diaz “has pushed the envelope” of both conventional theatre and Latino identity with provocative artistry that doesn’t beat you over the head. Torres cofounded Teatro Vista, which collaborated with Victory Gardens in mounting “Deity,” and he directed the work that he now takes to New York City.
For someone poised to hit Broadway soon at the ripe age of 32, Diaz doesn’t seem worried at all about topping the profusely rave reviews of “Deity.” He mentions that he spends a lot of time in bars, both writing and hanging out with friends. He also blogs regularly about theatre, baseball and one of his favorite TV shows, “The Wire”: “This is like the nerdiest thing, but that’s sort of what I do for fun.”
You can read Kristoffer Diaz’s musings at http://kristofferdiaz.wordpress.com
Welcome to Arroyo’s
When: April 15-May 26
Where: American Theater Company, 1909 W. Byron St., Chicago
Showtimes: Thursdays and Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 3 and 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m.
Admission: Previews (first week of performances), $30; Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays, $35
Info: (773) 409-4125, www.atcweb.org
The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity
When: April 26-May 20
Where: Second Stage Theater, 305 West 43rd St., New York
Showtimes: Tuesday, 7 p.m.; Wednesday and Saturday, 2 and 8 p.m.; Thursdays and Fridays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. (except May 2 when there will be two shows at 2 and 7 p.m.)
Admission: $15-$70
Info: (212) 246-4422, www.2st.com

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