Saphia Suarez

Song, dance and drums will come together this week in the Hopper Cabaret to tell stories of Afro Puerto Rican women.

Written and directed by Saphia Suarez ’21, “La Negra: A Bomba Musical” will feature an all-female cast. With performances from Nov. 14 through 16, “La Negra” portrays the history of Afro Puerto Rican women in Loíza, Puerto Rico, who led liberation movements. The stories range from the legend of Yuisa, the first female Taino chieftain, to Colectiva Feminista, a feminist group that organized recent protests in the aftermath of struggles to recover from Hurricane Maria.

The musical incorporates bomba, an Afro Puerto Rican song-dance form that traces its origins to 16th-century Africa and the Caribbean slave trade. Bomba became an important means of communicating the political and social conditions of the colonial era, and served as a form of cultural resistance for the people enslaved on the island.

According to Suarez, the play stemmed from a desire to learn more about an art form that her Puerto Rican family practices. This past summer, Suarez traveled to Puerto Rico and reconnected with her family through her newfound interest in bomba. Suarez said that it strengthened her connection to both her family and her Puerto Rican identity.

Suarez explained that because different drum rhythms convey different meanings, bomba lends itself naturally to theater. In the musical, actors perform a combination of choreographed and improvised dance, and explore verbal and nonverbal forms of storytelling.

“They go back and forth, almost translating their dance into words at some points,” Suarez said.

In order to prepare for the show, the cast of “La Negra” attended bomba workshops with the local bomba group Movimiento Cultural.

Kevin Diaz, founder of Movimiento Cultural, said he was very impressed by how quickly the students learned bomba and that it is invigorating to see their interest in the art form. Diaz added that bringing bomba to Yale is a huge accomplishment, and he hopes that interest and support for bomba will continue to grow at the University. The group offers free workshops every Sunday and drumming lessons on Wednesdays.

According to Diaz, interest in bomba resurfaced among young people after Hurricane Maria. Suarez said she believes this is because bomba provides a liberating, supportive space people need after trauma and destruction.

The production received funding from a Women at Yale Arts Grant as part of the 50WomenAtYale150 celebration. Camara Aaron ’21, the show’s producer, said it is important to recognize that broad narratives celebrating women predominantly celebrate white women. With this in mind, the team wanted to make sure that the anniversary also celebrated women of color.

“It’s important to think about the contributions of black and indigenous women throughout the histories of a lot of liberation movements,” Aaron said. “I think they’re often shunted and ignored, and this musical pays special attention to them.”

Aaron said that since her family is originally from the West Indies and was affected by Hurricane Maria, producing the show has personal significance.

Amira Williams ’21, an actor, noted the significance of the show’s location in Grace Hopper College, which until 2017 was named after statesman and slavery advocate John C. Calhoun.

“I hope that black and indigenous women leave the theater feeling ownership, like their history is seen and acknowledged and respected,” Aaron said.

According to Suarez, bomba is about finding personal release and experiencing liberation. Because the spirit of equity and inclusion is core to the art form, it was important for auditions to be open to the public and for people with all levels of acting experience to participate. Suarez said that at the end of the show, the audience is encouraged to jump onto the stage with the performers and participate in the dance.

“My biggest goal was to elevate the voices of people who felt like this was their story to tell,” Suarez said.

Shows will occur at 8 p.m. each evening, with an additional afternoon show at 2 p.m. on Nov. 16. Grace Hopper College is located at 189 Elm St.

 

Carrie Zhou | carrie.zhou@yale.edu