Brownsville Bred

  • Our critic's rating:
    July 1, 2011

    Review by Tulis McCall

    Elaine Del Valle seems like a sincere, friendly person who is very funny when she lapses into Spanglish and talks about her family. She has navigated the terrain from Brownsville to an apartment overlooking Central Park, complete with a loving husband and successful twenty-something daughter. Ergo she is a smart and determined woman. She is someone I would like to have for a neighbor. As for being someone who can create and pull off a one woman show based on her life, however, Ms. Del Valle has a lot to learn.

    Brownsville Bred is a quick travelogue thorough Del Valle’s life. She was born in Brownsville, Brooklyn: blocks away from where Margaret Sanger set up the first clinic that dispensed birth control information for which Sanger was arrested. Today, Brownsville is the area mostly known for its acres of low-income housing. This is the home of the projects, of rap, of violence and gangs. The median income of this one square mile is $18,000. The population is 116,500.

    When Del Valle was growing up she was in the minority: she was a Puerto Rican who wanted to be black. We follow Del Valle through her puberty and into her teenage years where one thing after another happens to her. Her father leaves the family to return to Puerto Rico. Del Valle gets her first period. She witnesses a shooting. She figures out the rules for walking the streets and how you make certain no one is following you. She wins concert tickets. She gets beat up. She visits her father in PR. She gets into Brooklyn Tech. She is her mother’s birthing partner for the birth of her littlest sister.

    With the exception of fending off a mugger, Del Valle herself does little. In other words there is no action to this story other than the telling of it. There is no point of view, and without that we are lost.

    Del Valle’s story is self referential in the extreme. “Look at me talk about my life, yo,” she seems to be saying. She makes jokes that are childish: “My Mami was an older woman. She was 21 and my Papi he was 19.” And jokes that ridicule her heritage: Her Papi loved the “New Jork Jankees.” And jokes that attempt to show us how much Del Valle didn’t know about life. Reflecting on 1984, when she was a first year student in high school she remembers Reagan. “Well, this dude Regan, he had some real cool ideas, y’know. He had told this dude, with this beg stain on his head, he was like Mr. Tear down that wall!” And he did, just like that. These might be palatable were they not followed by sweet smirks that would give Betty Boop a run for her money. Ms Del Valle is too cute by half and then some.

    This entire story is told from the viewpoint of a woman who got out of the projects, but it is being disguised as something else. That something else is unidentifiable. Ms. Del Valle plays one note throughout, an innocent enthusiasm that has no foundation and is ill-suited for a grown up with some experience under her belt. What was intended as a way to get people to like her ends up being cloying. Ms. Del Valle is already likeable. She doesn’t have to hide behind a self-effacing screen.

    Del Valle closes the show with a roll call of her siblings’ successes. One sister is married with seven children and living in Long Island, one brother is an executive, another is a Master Carpenter, that littlest sister lives with Mami and the new husband also in Long Island. And Del Valle’s 22 year old daughter – just about the same age as her daughter (now THERE’s a story: raising a daughter while your mother is raising a child the same age…) - is experimenting with her major in college.

    And what of Del Valle? Nada. Except that she is married to a guy named Al who likes salsa. From beginning to end Del Valle keeps us at arms length both with the text and her performance. We never get a grip on who is talking and, more importantly WHY. Without that, what is the point?

    In the telling of her own tale Del Valle is MIA. Something I suspect she is not in real life.

    (Tulis McCall)

    "Del Valle is a whirlwind of talent,.. An attractively modest tribute to looking on the bright side and refusing to settle for less."
    Mark Peikert for Back Stage

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