Author’s perilous journey from Cuba to America inspires theater piece

Erasmo Guerra reviews Jay Alvarez’s one-man show for The New York Daily News.

His family had just set out by boat, desperate to escape Fidel Castro’s Cuba, when 4-year-old Jay Alvarez, whimpering and overwhelmed about leaving his island home, leans over and pukes into the warm Caribbean waters.

“¡Ten cuidado! Te comen los tiburones,” warns someone on the boat. “Be careful! The sharks will eat you!”

“Those six little words,” Alvarez recounts decades later in his play of the same name, “are some of my most vivid memories of that still, quiet, moonless night. The gentle lapping of the waves on the shore, the sound of searching for a radio station, the whispers, the whispers, the whispers, the fully intentioned whispers. It was March 16, 1964.”

The one-man show, written and performed by Alvarez, and developed and directed by Theresa Gambacorta, is equal parts oral family history and guided tour of prerevolutionary Cuba.

The piece, which just wrapped up a run as part of the 15th annual New York International Fringe Festival, reopens next Wednesday at Stage Left Studio, 214 W. 30th St., where it will play on selected dates through Oct. 25.

The first night the show played at the Fringe fest, Alvarez stood outside the Cherry Lane Theatre, his tan face glistening in the sultry, dark crook of Commerce St.

While he wasn’t exactly sick with stage jitters, he admitted that he was a “mess.”

“It’s been three weeks since I performed the play,” he said. But you could say everything was smooth sailing once he got on stage.

The bare set held nothing more than two chairs. Alvarez himself wore a simple costume of cargo pants and a guayabera the color of untroubled skies. Stage props were relegated to whatever fit in his pockets — a Cuban flag on a stick to cheer the rebels as they parade through city streets; oversize, poke-your-eye-out jewelry to indicate a Tía Julia already living in New York.

While the production seems stripped down to whatever Alvarez could carry on his back, his charismatic energy filled the theater as he portrayed a number of characters, most notably his mother, Chiqui, and his father, Humberto.

At times, the play veered toward the shrill and screechy, but there was enough humor, human engagement and outbursts of cubanismos to make the show a wondrous and compelling watch.

Born in Matanzas, Cuba, and raised in Miami, Alvarez now calls New York home (he lives in Union Square). Though he’s primarily an actor — “I did the high school play ‘Godspell,’” Alvarez said — he started writing “Sharks” about five years ago, based on audio recordings a nephew had done with Alvarez’s dad before his death.

“I guess I was missing my father,” the writer said. “I started listening to it and just started to write.”

The story sat in a file on his computer for two years. Last year, after developing the material for six months, Alvarez put on three performances at Stage Left Studio.

Since then, it’s played at other venues in New York, Los Angeles and Miami.

His 92-year-old Tía Julia, who lives on Staten Island, hasn’t seen the play yet. “She doesn’t know that she wants to go back there,” Alvarez said. But a lot of other playgoers come up to him to share their own memories.

“Quite often after the shows, somebody wants to tell me about one of their relatives that escaped from somewhere,” Alvarez said. “The play is Cuban-specific, but it really is the American story. It is the story of the immigrant.”

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