A rap, a dance, a musical show, four distinct story lines, in multiple languages — the Yale Cabaret comes alive when a single actor, appearing on a minimalist stage, can move among genres without missing a beat. This is what Kevin Daniels DRA ’10 achieves in “El Hablador: the Storyteller keeps butterflies.”
The sole performer in and writer of the 45-minute production, Daniels — the “storyteller” — crawls, jumps, spins and launches his body across the stage, mixing metaphors, popular culture and historical references, inciting shock and laughter in quick succession.
The performance begins in complete darkness as a man, in faint outline, utters rhythmic intonations to rising strains of music. The stories he proceeds to tell, while rapping, chanting, spluttering, even spitting, are of four teenagers — three males of color (Latino, African-American and mixed-race gay) and a white female. Though each story is unique, the stories share common themes — confusion, loneliness, and dejection. All describe lives lived in a shadow and the inability to transcend dangerous addictions, from cigarettes to cocaine.
Telling the Latino guy’s story, Daniels raps about bad grades, rolling blunts and getting fat from cocaine and his white girlfriend, who listens to Coldplay. He talks of death from diabetes and dreams of being “a rapper or a dancer” that are “ripped at the seams.”
Evoking African-American experience past and present, the storyteller conjures up images of slave ships, unprotected sex, “grandma’s dead body floating in the basement,” and Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. There are also lighter moments vis-à-vis allusions to pop culture icons — Lady Gaga, Rihanna’s “Umbrella,” Jay-Z and Cindy Crawford.
But at no point do the storyteller’s histrionics and dramatic movements across the stage overpower his words. Rather, the choreography by Brenna Palughi DRA ’10 is always purposeful, and especially powerful at moments when Daniels hunches down and shoots in and out of shadows or when his ballet-like spinning becomes crude, as he throws himself against walls and windows. After each tale, the storyteller coughs and spits, portraying the struggle involved in the telling, often falling to the ground. The actions heighten the bodily character of the performance, accompanying chants about getting high to drown out the past.
The lighting by Alan Edwards DRA ’11 is just right. Featuring little illumination except striking uses of a red light, her work conveys the show’s dark quality and the storyteller’s anxiety about divulging his tales. Often the lights flash on him, as if forcing him to tell his stories, following him as he tries to scuttle away into the darkness.
Ana Milosevic’s DRA ’11 set is likewise sparse, but includes some bold elements. Completely on the floor level, the stage is covered with phrases written in chalk — the preface recited by the storyteller as the performance opens. Beer bottles stuffed with paper scrolls hang from the theater’s ceiling and become central to Daniels’ improvisational interactions with the audience.
Graceful, gross, even violent, the storyteller brings the audience into his world. Daniels captivates us with his rap and dance while making it clear that we’re not supposed to know all the words or moves.