The UrbanTheater Company’s performing space on Division Street is not small—I have seen them stage plays there just packed with actors—but it is really not large enough to contain all that Flaco Navaja brings to it in this tight little solo show. For 80 minutes, the New York-based chameleon poet, actor, and singer fills the space with characters and scenes, friends, family, and total strangers (an intense mother, a hapless school friend, a wise but emotionally wounded Vietnam vet uncle, an ex-wife giving birth in an Uber). Lecturing, shouting, dancing, singing, crying out in pain, he recounts key moments from his life growing up in the Bronx (where he was born and raised) and other boroughs of New York City. Navaja was for a while the host of the open-mike showcase, “All That! Hip Hop Poetry & Jazz,” at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in Manhattan, and his experience creating worlds with just a microphone and a room full of observers shows.
What makes this show (presented as part of the fifth annual Destinos: Chicago International Latino Theater Festival, and directed by UrbanTheater Company artistic director Miranda González) remarkable, though, is that Navaja is not content to just tell us his life stories. He adds a second layer to the evening. Backed by a small but powerful band, the Razor Blades (an homage, perhaps, to salsa and Latin jazz singer, composer, and actor Rubén Blades), Navaja also delivers a lecture-demonstration on popular music, specifically Latin music, and the structure of salsa songs. The two aspects of the show—the personal and the cultural—are tightly woven together; much of the musical lecture also concerns Navaja’s still-only-partly-fulfilled yearning to become a great sonero (the singer in salsa bands). The result is an intense, entertaining, thoroughly satisfying, intimate show that still somehow stretches the seams of UrbanTheater Company’s spacious performing space.