Before she won the Pulitzer Prize for Water by the Spoonful and collaborated with Hamilton wunderkind Lin-Manuel Miranda on his first musical, In the Heights, Quiara Alegría Hudes wrote the short, slight, and sometimes saccharine Yemaya's Belly.
The 80-minute play is punctuated with magical realism and moves with a poetic rhythm, but its pretty words don't actually have much to say. The trope of an orphaned boy who sets out to seek a new life doesn't offer anything new, and the characters barely skim the surface of their tale. The abrupt ending just leaves its audience adrift.
But former Cara Mía Theatre Co. artistic director Marisela Barrera moves her cast with a sprightly hand, guiding them from the rural Cuban village where Jesus lives with his farming family to the big city and finally out to sea. Omar Padilla is charming as the young boy, who marvels at everything from his uncle's swagger-filled way of playing dominoes to how easily the local shopkeeper (Jerrold Trice) can split open a coconut.
Jesus follows his wheeling-and-dealing uncle (Ivan Jasso) into the city, where he's enchanted by the fancy hotel and receives his first ice-cold Coca-Cola from a friendly grocery story owner (Frida Espinosa Müller). The extravagance of cold beverages convinces Jesus that one day he will amass a fortune, enough to sleep in soft hotel beds and refrigerate all his sodas. But while he is gone, a fire ravages his town and leaves Jesus an orphan.
A chance encounter with a young woman who runs boats to America (Tiana Kaye Johnson) inspires Jesus to leave his only worldly possession — a barrel full of rice and pennies, previously guarded by his father — and set out to sea. The girl, Maya, tells him "water stories" of her supposed ancestors, who watch over them while they travel.
Kenneth Verdugo's spindly set is complemented by Mark Pearson's tropical lighting, which conjures both the sultry heat of Cuba and the fresh coolness of the water. Cara Mía company member S-Ankh Rasa once again provides original music and sound effects, a trend that the company will hopefully continue.
It feels as though we should be making a pointed correlation to the hot-button immigration struggles happening both in America and around the world (though the play was written in 2003), but somehow Jesus' journey seems less urgent, as several people offer to care for him before he departs.
Likewise, raging fires, rough seas, and an adventure to new lands should make for riveting theater, but Hudes' featherweight script simply drifts along, sending us all out to sea.
Cara Mía Theatre Co.'s production of Yemaya's Belly runs at the Latino Cultural Center through March 19.