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Review | A play’s emotional take on the Cuban diaspora in Miami

In “Las Hermanas Palacios,” a sea of vibrant colors, geometric designs, salsa music, ‘80s Latin dance-pop, ostrich feathers and palm trees hits you just minutes into the show’s opening scene. It leaves you at a loss for words.

The sisters Olga, Maria and Irinita Palacio (played respectively by Yaiza Figueroa, Catherine Nuñez and Carolina Reyes) enter the scene dressed in white, dancing between marimbas and trumpets to dramatize their exodus from Havana to Miami as part of the 1980 Mariel boatlift, all before they ever begin uttering their first lines.

The chaos underscores the speed of Miami becoming an even bigger fixture of the Latin American diaspora in the ‘80s. Many immigrants from Cuba, Nicaragua and elsewhere came to the area during that period, amid a wave of weakening economic situations, political turmoil and Cold War collateral damage.

The world premiere play at GALA Hispanic Theatre, performed in Spanish with English surtitles, is adapted from Anton Chekhov’s “Three Sisters,” in which a similar trio longs to leave their provincial Russian towns and romanticizes their own childhoods living in nearby Moscow. “Las Hermanas” shows how the sisters and their family try to build on the artistic passions they had in Cuba. While they find glimmers of the little things that remind them of home, such as a Cuban espresso or Latin music, they are struggling to match their identities to a city still finding itself within a larger diaspora.

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The family is burdened and at times overwhelmed by the new environment that’s morphing their morals, a place regarded at the time as a murder capital and a hub for cartels. Irinita, for instance, who’s trying to find her footing in Miami as a ballet dancer, feels conflicted about the option of instead dancing as a showgirl at a nightclub. The family members even find themselves averse to those bright pink flamingos that serve as the mascot for Miami’s Art Deco movement and Florida lottery tickets, especially when the gringa sister-in-law (Nancy, played by Rachel Small) revamps their house with bird decor without their permission. It distracts from the monochrome green and palm tree furnishings they’re used to.

Like shows such as “In The Heights” and “West Side Story,” “Las Hermanas Palacios” tackles stories of competing values in assimilation. The family lives in a neighborhood called Little Havana, but the city feels unfamiliar, especially as it grows to become even more emblematic of an American society that values money and power.

“Las Hermanas Palacios” eventually brings in Miami’s underworld: the violence, the sketchy dealings of nightclubs, the dancing showgirls dressed in bright pink. A club owner who goes by La Varona (Luz Nicolás) is emblematic of this; her money laundering schemes gradually reel the Palacio family in. The story begins to recall “The Sopranos,” or Netflix’s recently-released “Griselda,” which follows Colombian drug lord Griselda Blanco as she rises through the ranks of the Miami drug scene.

Cuban American director Adrián Alea and Havana-born playwright Cristina García don’t glorify these plotlines, instead focusing on how they affect the family’s core conflicts and at times drive them apart. The assorted memorable characters are neatly developed through nuanced backstories, motivations and flaws.

The play’s tension also extends to artistic expression. Andrés, played by Víctor Salinas, a trained classical pianist, struggles to adapt to a changing music scene calling for the fast rhythms and dance styles that were popular in Miami at the time, as in Miami Sound Machine’s 1985 hit “Conga.” The song may have traces of the salsa and boleros he grew up listening to in Cuba, but the music still feels foreign to him. He’s more familiar with the likes of Celia Cruz and Johnny Pacheco’s salsa hit “Quimbara.”

During that opening scene, Andrés stands on the side of the stage playing his trumpet while “Conga” drowns it out. It was right at the opening scene that I was hooked. The family is thrown into a world of excess, materialism and ulterior motives, and through this noise, they just want to make their own way.

Las Hermanas Palacios (The Palacios Sisters), by Cristina García. Directed by Adrián Alea. Scenic design, Frank J. Oliva; sound, Justin Schmitz; props, Luke Hartwood; costumes, Rodrigo Muñoz; lighting and projections, Hailey LaRoe. About 110 minutes. In Spanish with English surtitles. Through Feb. 25 at GALA Hispanic Theatre, 3333 14th St. NW., Washington. galatheatre.org.


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