Theater Review / EL ISLEÑO 1921 presented by Fringe Theater Key West
Musical Direction by Michael D. Robinson / Stage Direction by Rebecca Tomlinson
Written by Ben Harrison
Review by Emily Berg
Playwrights in Key West have the unique advantage of being surrounded by a diverse history from which to pull. Between the array of zany island characters, hurricanes and corrupt politicians entertaining plot points are never in short supply. However, finding the right story and the tone in which to tell it can prove more difficult.
Ben Harrison has once again has brought a piece of Key West history to the stage with the new musical El Isleño 1921 and done so in an entertaining, relatable and most importantly, respectful way.
The musical opens on the Red Rooster, a “coffee and tea” shop operating during prohibition. The proprietor Manual Cabeza known as El Isleño (the islander) is running the business after returning from the front lines of the first world war. His love, Angela, lives and works by his side. When she rebuffs the advances of a local klansmen El Isleño becomes the target of the klan due to the mixed race relationship he shares with Angela.
The story, and ultimate lynching of El Isleño is tragically true. If you saw Harrison’s last musical, Undying Love, which told the very creepy and disturbingly true story of Key West’s Count Von Cosel, you’ve seen Harrison’s ability to take a dark piece of the island’s history and add enough levity to make it entertaining while telling the story with accuracy.
Though the story of El Isleño 1921 is tragic the latin rhythms are joyful. The live band (the “Red Rooster Ragtime Band”) is packed with talent. Their performance alone is worth the price of admission. And with feminist numbers such as “Sporting Girls” that give us the line “with the power of the puss and the right to vote things are looking up” it’s hard not to feel moments of happiness throughout the performance.
The musical takes place over 100 years ago though it’s not difficult to see its themes playing out in our current world. The punishments look different now but El Isleño and Angela’s story is not so far removed from what we see on the news today.
This relatability is only emphasized by the powerful performances given by the entire cast but especially the male and female leads. Aramis Ikatu is charming as El Isleño, an instant hero to cheer for. Mariah Woessner’s performance as Angela is strong and nuanced.
The language of the play is accurate and thus I found a little jarring at first, but this is just one example of the respectful way in which the topic of race and prejudice is handled in the musical. The words used at that time for other humans does raise an eyebrow today but it would miss the mark to water it down for my sensitive twenty-first century ears.
Like the true story the ending isn’t exactly happy but El Isleño is hopeful. One of the final numbers “Upper Hand” is particularly moving as it demonstrates the resiliency of the community. Not all of this island’s history is pretty but, as Harrison proves, is can be presented beautifully.
El Isleño 1921 runs now through February 25 at the 600 White Street in the Armory. Tickets are available at fringetheater.org.[livemarket market_name="KONK Life LiveMarket" limit=3 category=“” show_signup=0 show_more=0]