Pop-punk, heartbreak, and belonging

Philly Fringe 2023: James Haro presents GO AHEAD

4 minute read
Against a fanciful watery background, Haro poses regally with his guitar on a stool, wearing green-framed sunglasses.

James Haro’s autobiographical live show, GO AHEAD, a product of the artist’s James Haro in Storage music project, has returned to the Philly Fringe this year. Local performer and fellow solo artist Jenna Kuerzi directs with musical accompaniment from Josh Totora. I attended the opening-night show on Friday, September 8, staged in the rear of the MAAS Building Garden. At just under an hour, this Cannonball Festival entry moves at a brisk pace, fitting for a production using pop-punk as its vehicle.

The opening poem, which says, “We are so much clay under the palm of our circumstances…,” is a good thesis statement for the entire piece. Haro acknowledges in a carefully crafted ramble that our lives can be broken down into the circumstances that forge us, using examples from his own key experiences. The show simulates a live pub event, incorporating an actual open mic where artists can sign up to perform on Haro’s stage. This is an excellent framing device and pays off extremely well when Haro takes on the persona of a put-upon open-mic emcee, donning a button-down shirt. This emcee reveals a list of insecurities and general worries transcribed directly from his own soul. It’s an excellent bit, performed with just the right amount of judgmental boredom to elicit a well-earned laugh from the audience.

Heartbreak and belonging

While the well-worn pop-punk theme of getting over heartbreak is central to the proceedings, there is an overarching theme of belonging that is just as present. Haro, a Philly-based Mexican American playwright, producer, and singer/songwriter, speaks of finding a sense of comfort and connection within the Latin community despite not being a fluent Spanish speaker. The California native draws a parallel between two life experiences. In one, he happened upon a coyote in the wee hours of the morning and was immediately thrown into fight-or-flight mode until the creature decided to simply walk away. In the second, he met a fellow Latin artist in Philly who assuaged his discomfort and what sounds almost like a sense of guilt by embracing him and assuring him he needn't apologize for not being “Latino enough.” Both encounters could have caused harm, but everyone walked away unhurt.

GO AHEAD doesn’t just concern itself with fears and anxieties. Haro tells the audience about childhood pressures to join the priesthood, but describes in poetry falling in and out of love then back into love with his fiancée, and their plans to build a life together. Afterward, he uses a paintbrush to flick water from a cup out into the audience as an unorthodox “blessing” for belonging that implores us to “flick [our] beans” and “pull [our] puds.”

Later, he revives an earlier discussion about the complex feelings that can arise around language by noting that translation apps can bridge language gaps much like the words on a karaoke display screen can give you the words you need to belt out and be seen, heard, and understood.

Bringing the bops

A show based around the exhilarating beats and emotive lyrics of pop-punk needs to have bops. Luckily, Haro has that covered. After the opening poem paints the depressing but lurid picture of a heartbroken Haro getting over his loneliness with various anonymous liaisons, he goes into his first (and best) of three songs, gods. While it shares no sonic DNA with Joni Mitchell’s The Same Situation, it’s the first song that came to my mind when listening to this opener.

The open-mic segment has potential. The first slot gives Totora the spotlight and a chance to come out from the drum kit and show that he is also a capable vocalist and multi-instrumentalist. The second slot is reserved for an audience member. On opening night, Haro’s mother stepped up with some endearing banter, and led the crowd in a rousing rendition of the Eagles fight song.

Haro’s second song, City Terrace, explores his heritage. Some of the lyrics are in Spanish. It’s more melodic but still has a good beat. Next, Verses builds to a thrilling musical crescendo and should be the finale of the show, but he inexplicably ends with Surrender by Cheap Trick—no, not a live cover, just the tap of an iPhone.

This is a strangely impersonal way to end the proceedings, especially given an extended segment on his life and musical influences that highlights women artists like Jenny Lewis of Rilo Kiley. While it doesn’t undo the show’s best parts, the final song feels strangely anticlimactic.

Above: (Image courtesy of the artist.)

What, When, Where

GO AHEAD. By James Haro, directed by Jenna Kuerzi. $5-$50 on a sliding scale; $25 suggested. Through September 27, 2023, at MAAS Building Garden 1320 N 5th Street, Philadelphia. (215) 413-1318 or phillyfringe.org.


The MAAS Building Garden is a first-floor space, but the restroom is not ADA-compliant.

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