When you walk into Carl(os) Roa’s Andean Mountains (Montañas Andinas) at Taller Puertorriqueño and you don’t speak Spanish, you have a lot of thoughts, all of which make you feel painfully self-conscious. Though you are greeted in English, you might think, “Why did my school require French and not Spanish? Who speaks French in the United States?” You might also think, “I don‘t belong.”
It’s that last thought that drives Roa’s solo performance. As the audience enters Taller’s auditorium, Roa approaches, clad in a Colombian ruana, and welcomes individuals with a guileless smile while speaking to them in rapid-fire Spanish. Once all are seated, he asks, “¿Soy un gringo?” Well, is he?
Who are you?
The answer is yes… and no. Raised in Miami, taken to visit his father's native Colombia, growing up queer, he searched for a sense of belonging. Using Google Street View projected on a screen behind him, he leads a semi-fictional tour of his childhood and young adulthood, featuring sotolongo groves (don’t know what a sotolongo is? Urban Dictionary offers one definition); Ponce de León Middle School; and the dizzying, overwhelming feeling of running back and forth between buildings on his urban college campus, perennially several minutes behind schedule.
Of course, as the saying goes, in the particular lies the universal. Roa speaks of himself in the third person, often switching pronouns from “he” to “they,” perhaps indicating gender fluidity, perhaps to further disorient the audience, perhaps giving his story a wider appeal. It could be all three.
His desire to find a culture to which he can belong finds echoes across the United States, a nation of refugees, immigrants, slaves, indigenous people forced from their native lands, and/or their descendants. When he shows a Google view of a Colombian volcano, he says, “Sometimes he felt his culture was lichen at the bottom of this volcano and he could hoard little pieces of culture to make a ball of culture that was his and no one else’s.” That’s the story of the United States in a nutshell (or a sotolongo fruit), isn’t it?
Directed by José Avilés, Andean Mountains (Montañas Andinas) makes good use of the space, moving from floor to stage and back again. It also moves quickly, though Roa occasionally seems flustered, as though the material is getting away from him.
But Roa offers an engaging voice, and it’s one that shows promise. As a graduate of the Headlong Performance Institute, he certainly has the tools to develop and sharpen that voice. The Fringe is all about experimentation. It’s a place where the new can let loose and let fly, and in that context, Roa’s piece offers an in-depth look at this new(ish) contributor to Philly’s performance landscape.