#GRACED is a Play at the Crossroads of Culture Wars and Self-Discovery

Cast of #GRACED by Justin Namon

What does it mean to be American in the age of globalization via social media? #GRACED endeavors to unpack the lofty question through the lens of its protagonist Catherine (Melissa Almaguer), a Cuban-American woman who embarks on a cross-country trip across America with her colleague turned lover Lewis (Chris Anthony Ferrer.) Throughout the play the two venture through the country, inspired by the novel “On the Road” by Jack Kerouac and by Catherine’s own desires in a trip that is sponsored by Monteverde Moonshine. #GRACED runs from May 4-21, 2023 as a part of the Arsht Center’s Theater Up Close series with tickets available here

As the audience is seated in the house, a road trip playlist of tracks including “Party in the USA” by Miley Cyrus and “American Woman” by Lenny Kravitz ushers the crowd into the Arsht Center’s black box space. A makeshift red half-bus is planted in the middle of the theatrical space as a projection screen covers the “stage” area. Zoetic Stage director Stuart Meltzer introduces the opening night crowd with some words of encouragement that word of mouth is what helps enable ticket sales. Especially with the company’s exceptionally strong production of “Next to Normal” selling out multiple performances, the theatrical group understands how crucial a good reception to its shows are. 

The show opens to Catherine emerging behind the projection scrim which illuminates a social media post of a copy of “On the Road” in front of a portrait of Jesus Christ. The screen scrolls through various comments spoken by the personified Algorithmic Mayhem (Lucy Lopez) taunt and tease Catherine as a “crazy Cuban Republican” to which Catherine screams about her political views, in a gag that’s reiterated in the “rule of threes” throughout the show. “#GRACED” at its ethos’ venture in its use of projection design from mononymus artist Delavega is both the framing device for the characters in their travels from each town, but as a character itself that sews discord for the group throughout the show. The show’s framing of social media is as a vital tool that has connected us like we have never been able to connect before, yet is also this amorphous rage-filled cauldron of vitriol that has enabled discourse to be whittled down to this meaningless color war meant to distract us from the genuine issues plaguing our nation. Delavega’s projection design is one of the absolute highlights of the show being an absolutely detailed UI/UX that dramaturgically provides what the story calls for while being called up from delicately timed cues that enhance the comedy of the plot.

Indeed, playwright Vanessa Garcia, emboldened to create her work by the events of the 2016 election states “America (prior to the 2016 election) and my life felt like it was both going through a breaking point that could either tear it up for good or lead to a new light,” says playwright Vanessa Garcia. “Even the Nobel Prize Committee was leery of what American art had to offer,” she continued. “What the world sees as America isn’t the real America, or rather, only just a part of it,” she concluded.” 

Journeying along from #city to #city, we meet her compatriot Lewis, an American with heritage from Argentina, whom Catherine is making her travels with. Along the van ride, the two are tasked with creating social media content for the Monteverde Moonshine brand in a dialogue that is reminiscent of “Into the Wild” meets “Emily in Paris.” In an allusion to her other major work, “The Amparo Experience” where an audience was immersed in the real story of the Havana Club rum founders’ experience, she has Lucy Lopez perform as the founder of Monteverde Moonshine and his long-winded story of coming to America to craft moonshine. 

The road trip format in media is a distinctly American concept, with films like “Little Miss Sunshine” and “National Lampoon’s Vacation” and even in theatrical renditions like the recent flop musical “Almost Famous.” While all radically different stories, the format has stayed a tried and true method as it provides a clean three-act structure and different backdrops to keep the viewer going along the characters’ journey. The road trip itself dates back to industrialist Henry Ford developing the Interstate Highway System which was indeed revolutionary for its time but inevitably would lead to the derailment of public transport systems. As America became more connected, it also became more isolated with people only having to interact with those in the same vehicle. The show’s leads Catherine and Lewis are introduced as bickering over trivial political gripes in the car but come off as a bit forced in some of the show’s moments. Realistically, this comes from stage-ifying human interactions for an audience, but as someone that regularly has the harder political conversations with friends it does feel reeled back when the duo can come to terms with differing views. Inevitably, both find their way across America by detangling their own respective webs of their heritage, culminating in a dance number at the show’s end. 

In #NewOrleans we meet a nun, Rosalie (Dalia Alemán) who has just left the convent after witnessing a traumatic death and joins Catherine and Lewis on their trek. An absolute highlight of this production, Alemán’s depiction of the ready-to-rebel nun is measured, a truly theatrical yet entirely humanistic portrayal of what would shake even the most devout of us, cause someone to leave the safety net of a bubble free from the outside world and finding delight in hedonistic pleasures. From her opening scene detailing her time in the nunnery all the way to her indulging in casual sex and smoking marijuana on Tinder, Alemán has studied the role in such a way that makes the most of her time on stage.

Making their way to #Nashville the trio encounters a homeschooled teenager named Blake (Sabrín Diehl) dealing with both their single mother’s poverty and navigating burgeoning queer feelings. Diehl plays Blake with a youthful exuberance and grounds the character in a far more realistic sense that is somewhat betrayed by the text. There is some dialogue utilizing Gen Z slang that comes across as “How do you do, fellow teens” that could benefit from some more input from younger actors/writers. Garcia uses the character, in a sense, to grapple with the idea of Gen Z teens being simultaneously open to acceptance of LGBT issues yet entirely disinterested in engaging with the world outside of their phones. As a Gen X writer, Garcia casts Catherine as an actor in her mid-30s, with Blake acting as a foil, Catherine is able to dissect her own sexuality which leads to both an unrequited kiss with Blake and a near-sex scene with Lewis underscored by Lopez donning full Elvis drag to “Burnin’ Love” in the background. Blake is also given a fantastic scene of delivering a meandering voice note relaying important details that is sped up to 1.5 and 2x speed in one of the show’s best comedic moments.

The show’s greatest point of contention comes from the character Gianni (Kristian Bikic), a crutches-using Uruguayan immigrant who works at a Nashville restaurant patronized by Catherine and Blake. With his father still an undocumented immigrant in America, Gianni is filmed by Catherine to provide his story of his cooking and the grueling labor of trying to work towards being an artist in Nashville. When the attention Catherine’s social media posts tip off local law enforcement through attention to the business, Gianni’s father is sent back to Uruguay and Gianni is thrown in jail in the scuffle to protect his father. Kristian Bikic gives an intense moment in the show’s third act as he is bailed out by Catherine who feels guilty for being the reason Gianni was imprisoned and his father was deported, feeling deeply betrayed. Gianni is a stand-in for the reality of the immigrant experience, that America is not always a land of opportunity and working twice as hard to get ⅓ of what American-born citizens are afforded is not an easily Instagrammable moment of trauma porn but is a harsh reality some immigrants themselves may never even live to see come to fruition.

#GRACED does not offer any easy answers meant to be readily understood by its audience but rather will leave you walking away with more questions about where we are in America right now. As a Filipino-American, I could identify with where the book of the play was going in documenting an immigrant experience. To put simply, the show was not for me and that is not at all a detriment to the play. The audience for this play laughed deeper and sobbed harder at the show’s big moments and at the end of the day, is who #GRACED is for. 

While I did leave the show craving a more satiating conversation about the topic of how chronic online-ness has led us down our path of political discourse, it forsakes diving into these issues as a frame for the more intimate moments the show creates. When presented with compelling scenes, the show feels like it’s finally ready to let the audience in on its true intentions without the shield of buzzwords by giving a vulnerability to the small cast . As a text, the show is best not being a dramaturgical deep dive into the minutiae of outrage politics fueled by a culture war, but as a character study of everyday people trying their best to chase an American dream and the need for empathy to be truly human. If I were to give a recommendation, the show would be analogous to the road dramedies of “Little Miss Sunshine” or “Into the Wild” with a distinctly Cuban-American spin– an introspective road journey through the lens of identity. While the show traverses the country in search of America and self, its spirit directly resides in the 305. #GRACED runs from May 4-21, 2023 as a part of the Arsht Center’s Theater Up Close series with tickets available here

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