In Book-It’s production of Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, adapted for the stage by Literature to Life/Young Audiences New York, actor Elvis Nolasco turns in a one-man performance that does not just fill the stage: it fills the entire room. It’s not just good. It’s HOLY SHIT good. Nolasco plays over 20 characters! There’s breakdancing! There’s Dominican history (“two seconds” worth, but still)! Any perceived limitations of only using one stage, two chairs, one table, and one actor immediately dissipate as soon as Nolasco begins speaking. It’s an 85-minute story that invites you in, and you cannot turn down the invitation.
Nolasco, whose own parents left the Dominican Republic in 1965 for Puerto Rico before eventually settling in New York, told Oscar’s story with hints of the urgency from his own experience with diaspora. As an audience, we moved frequently, and we moved fast. One moment, we were bystanders tiptoeing onto an invitingly vibrant dance floor in Santo Domingo, then Nolasco jumped. Suddenly, on another level of the tiered stage we bore witness the stark horrors of prison under Trujillo’s dictatorship, only to be embraced by the warm darkness of a cane field seconds later.
Scenic designer Catherine Cornell sparsely dresses the stage for the audience’s travels. There’s a refrigerator bedecked with vintage sci-fi posters, two chairs, and a table. That’s it—but the whole theatre eventually fills with Nolasco’s energy. The understated, imaginative simplicity of the props make for their own unique transformations: chairs turn into the periphery of abuela’s kitchen. A single light summons the confinement of prison bars. You won’t even realize that you were waiting to find out what’s in the fridge until you’re at the edge of your seat trying to get a peek, too.
What I love most about Díaz’s work is the way he immerses you in his characters without compromising the complexity of their lived experiences for a white audience. You come to know all the small spaces where they tuck away their insecurities, you come to know their slang and verbal diasporas, how they hold themselves and carry through their lives. Nolasco reaches those same depths.
The audience is constantly visited and invited by character after character to one place after another, and, thankfully, we have Nolasco to introduce us to them and make sure we have our feet in the right place. His summoned personalities dance with each other during conversations that are equally insightful, humorous, and heartbreaking. And Nolasco’s continuous metamorphoses, which often occur in the space of a single breath, are spellbindingly natural. I was done for the moment that I could differentiate between characters based solely on how Nolasco breathed.
In Díaz’s book, I learned who Oscar was. In Nolasco’s performance, I learned how Oscar sighed.