By Donna Herman

Bamboo in Bushwick

L-R: Michelle Sui, Clinton Lowe in “Bamboo in Bushwick.” Photo by Mike Blase

I wanted to see Bamboo in Bushwick because of the topic – gentrification.  I thought it was an interesting idea that Working Theater developed the play out of conversations and workshops with the residents of Bushwick.  Unfathomably, Ed Cardona, Jr., the playwright, gets all artsy with it, and Bamboo in Bushwick winds up being a confusing, clichéd mess that doesn’t shed any new light on the subject.

The setting is, of course, Bushwick, Brooklyn.  The program tells us that the time is “Early spring, present day, on this side of the wall.  On the other side of the wall, the mural-verse, timeless.”  The stage is dominated by a big wall made of many screens on which the words “will I be remembered” are projected in a graffiti-like scrawl.   Downstage right there is a small tree that is surrounded by a lopsided wooden fence decorated with scraps of colored plastic.  Hanging from one scraggly branch is a bamboo wind chime.  The set remains the same during the alternating scenes of “present day” and “the mural-verse”

The first problem is that not much happens in the present day scenes except an ongoing game of dominoes, and what does, is hard to follow. Three of the six characters speak to each other interchangeably in Spanish and English, and one solely in Spanish. On top of the wall there are supertitles with translations being projected for the audience members who are uni-lingual. These switch to English if the character is speaking in Spanish, and vice versa.  However, since the characters switch back and forth between the two languages randomly, and it takes a moment or two for the brain to figure out whether you should be reading or listening, it’s difficult to follow along.  You wind up missing chunks of information.

My impression is that none of the long-time residents of the neighborhood are overly upset about the changes going on.  Edson (Arisael Rivera), the handyman who had to move with his family because he couldn’t afford the rent anymore, is philosophical.  Although his girls miss the park, he still makes good money in the neighborhood with all the renovations going on.  Crispin (Jose Antonio Melian), the retired social worker who plays dominoes all day, warns about sleazy landlords but knows who can help. The white, aging hipster, unemployed photographer, Swayze (John J. Concado) who has only lived there 4 years, is the only one who seems to have an attitude about it.  There are two artists who have been commissioned to paint a mural on the wall and when one of them, Nirt (Clinton Lowe), asks the domino players to shift so they can get to the wall behind them. Swayze goes off on them.

Meanwhile, on the “mural-verse” side of the wall, there are two different kinds of creatures.  All white, and black and white.  The first time we see them, there’s one all white creature on one side of the stage and about 3 or 4 black and white ones clustered on milk crates on the other side of the stage.  They’re clearly not in the same space but are aware of each other.  By about the third scene with the creatures, it has become clear that the white creatures (there are now more than one) are polar bears and the black and white ones are penguins.  The polar bears are swimming across the water to where the penguins are, in a break with the natural order of things.  The penguins are afraid for their lives and readying themselves to flee into the ice cold water to get away themselves.

It’s not until the last scene that we learn that those two species never meet in the real universe.  Polar bears live in The Arctic regions of the North, and penguins only in Antarctica in the Southern Hemisphere.  Apparently this was inspired by a penguin and polar bear mural in Bushwick.  Had the mural been seen in the present day scenes, it might have made some sense.  Had any of the Bushwick residents except the hipster shown any sense of being hunted by predators who didn’t belong it might the issue of gentrification.

Bamboo In Bushwick by Ed Cardona Jr., Directed by Ana Margineanu

WITH: Arisael Rivera (Edson/Green); Jose Antonio Melian (Crispin/Blue); Michelle Sui (Budhi/Violet); Clinton Lowe (Nirt/Indigo); Edna Lee Figueroa (Magalia/Orange); John J. Concado (Swayze/Red)

Set Design by Raul Abrego; Costume Design by Sarita Fellows; Lighting Design by Harry Feiner; Sound Design by Lawrence Schober; Video Design by Aaron Minerbrook; Props Design by Theresa Pierce; Choreography by Joya Powell; Fight Choreography by Gerardo Rodriguez, Presented by Working Theater, Mark Pleasant, Producing Artistic Director.  Thru May 3rd: Urban Stages, 259 W. 30th St. Manhattan; May 5-6: Local 3 IBEW Auditorium, 158-11 Harry Van Arsdale Jr. Ave. Queens; May 9-10: Snug Harbor Cultural Center, 1000 Richmond Terrace, Staten Island; May 13: New Settlement Community Center, 1501 Jerome Ave. Bronx.  For tickets visit: