Audience members who come to see “Quince” at the Bushwick Starr quickly find themselves adopting new roles as distant relatives turning up for a family affair.
Inside a warehouse set drenched in hot pink and silver streamers, newcomers are seated at banquet hall tables decorated with paper flower centerpieces and sprinkled with Mexican snacks and candy. Echoing the abundance of food characteristic of any Latine party, big or small, attendees are invited to bring in tacos from a food truck set up outside, and sip beers during the show.
The theater – a longtime fixture in predominantly Latine Bushwick, recently relocated to its present space at 419 Eldert St. – is co-producing “Quince” with One Whale’s Tale. The play is an immersive experience, weaving a traditional rite-of-passage birthday celebration together with the familial tension that accompanies a 15-year-old trying to understand her queer identity while respecting her family’s culture.
When the audience meets Cindy, played by the energetic 25-year-old Sara Gutierrez, it quickly becomes obvious that the overdone party decor is at odds with her character – and most likely obsessively orchestrated by Cindy’s overbearing yet loving single mom.
Cindy arrives in overalls and sneakers, and shows a nerdy obsession with her family’s religious history. “My family believed God and the Catholic Church were more important than anything!” the character exclaims. As she introduces the audience to tales passed down from family in Mexico, the stand-in tíos y tías represented by the audience realize they’ll have to take an emotional journey before they toast Cindy’s coming-of-age.
That journey involves Cindy’s family – mainly her 30-year-old mom, who makes Cindy do the math concerning the 15-year difference in their ages – looking inward to question a strict value system, in order to accept that Cindy just wants to dance with her girlfriend at her quince. (Brenda Flores brings a radiant humor and loving strictness to the role of Cindy’s mom.)
As the journey continues, the set seems to take on new meanings. The party band led by Chicana singer-songwriter Marilyn Castillo plays songs from the past that bring up forgotten memories and generational traumas. Glittering party streamers are mirrors evoking family reflections. Flowers on the tables are a garden for Cindy’s dead Abuela to bounce through while she whispers advice.
The show’s creators, Camilo Quiroz-Vázquez and Ellpetha Tsivicos of One Whale’s Tale, give each character a sense of magical acceptance. It’s an acceptance never found in many families, but one slowly becoming true for younger generations of Latinos.
“The element and the narrative of finding yourself and accepting yourself, despite everything around you with family and religion – it really touches base to who we are as young Mexican-American people,” Gutierrez told Gothamist at a recent performance of “Quince.”
To an older generation, the show extends some grace. Eddie Escoto, age 61, took the hour-plus drive from Jersey City to see “Quince” with his family. He said he appreciated the various levels of understanding each character represented.
“It took me a long time to understand the gay community – I didn’t understand it at all,” Escoto said. “But as I got older, I started to understand a little because I have a friend and he’s gay, and he’s like a brother to me.”
“Quince” ends with a Selena imitator, an indigenous goddess, a drinking priest and two 15-year-old characters finally dancing together. Escoto said he plans to come see the play again – with his granddaughter.
“Quince” runs through June 19th at the Bushwick Starr; bushwickstarr.org. “QUINCE en la Plaza,” an open-air adaptation, will be staged on Hearst Plaza at Lincoln Center on July 17th; lincolncenter.org.