Revenge of the nerds

Pub date May 27, 2009
WriterRobert Avila
SectionArts & CultureSectionStage


"Fukú Americanus" does not actually translate as "fucked-up American," but it might as well. Fukú refers to a curse, a bad piece of destiny that clings to your behind like a genetically transmitted boot up the ass, passing on through generations until it runs its course, which is who-knows-how-long. And if you want to get really specific about it, as does the narrator in Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, fukú is an imprecation brought to the Americas in the mouths of kidnapped Africans, amounting to nothing less than "the Curse and Doom of the New World." Which means we all get a turn.

So maybe it’s appropriate that Díaz’s titular hero is a chubby nonentity, an hombre of no importance, and a fully fledged geek whom his mom (Maria Candelaria) can barely stand and no girl seems destined to come within a quarter mile of. Despite a passion for women unusual even among his fellow Dominicans — according to confessed player and reluctant sidekick Yunior (Carlos Aguirre) — Oscar (Brian Rivera) stands to be the first Dominican man to die a virgin. Ultimately, however, he’s more than a subtraction sign. As incarnated with zest and goofy likeability by Rivera, he’s an indefatigable survivor, maybe even the fifth member of the Fantastic Four, if only in his own mind. He’s also a mad scribbler, ever composing his magnum opus in an endless series of marbled notebooks. (The "Wao" comes from someone’s misapprehension of an Oscar Wilde reference that sticks to our Oscar ever after. A fervent sci-fi, anime, Dungeons-and-Dragons dweeb, he’s actually trying to look like Doctor Who at the time, so the confusion turning a "who" from the D.R. to a "wao" in the U.S. becomes all the more poetical, and culturally laden.)

Oscar’s terrible virginity is only one of several burdens propelling the action in the world premiere of Fukú Americanus, Campo Santo’s boisterous post–hip-hop stage adaptation of Díaz’s 2007 Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, now up and pulsing — with lots of high-end but not enough in the bass — at Intersection for the Arts. The play cuts its largest swath through the New Jersey–based chapters of Diaz’s immigrant tale (which loosely aligns with the author’s own childhood passage from the D.R. to the U.S.), and features the travails of Oscar’s razor-sharp but wounded sister, Lola (Vanessa Cota), a goth-clad teen rebel against their cancer-ridden but nevertheless indomitably feisty mother. Meanwhile, Lola’s macho onetime-boyfriend Yunior gets cast in the role of Rutgers roomie and caretaker to Oscar.

Back of these plot points, and the transnational culture they limn, stands the inscrutable but ever-present designs of Fukú, in the lanky human form of our narrator (Biko Eisen-Martin), shirtless and shoeless in a black suit and silver bling. When not listening in on the action, he jumps in, usually literally, with a choice bit of information or opinion culled from the novel’s hefty footnotes and digressions. Intertwined with fukú is the burden of histories familial and colonial.

Given its subaltern subject matter, its slang-fueled homeboy/homegirl wisdom, curbside humor, and restive energy, Diaz’s novel would seem a natural fit for the kind of hip hop–inspired theatre Intersection for the Arts has championed with the Living Word Project as well as recent successes like Angry Black White Boy. On stage, however, it amounts to a high-energy but shallow distillation of the ample novel’s several decades of private history that are set meaningfully against a diasporic backdrop of colonial peonage, imperial intervention ("Santo Domingo was Iraq before Iraq was Iraq!"), hopeful and desperate migrations, New World ennui, oppression under a series of local and globetrotting top dogs — especially dictator Trujillo, here introduced only in the second act and a bit too inconsequentially — and disillusionment with that American Dream.

Codirectors Marc Bamuthi Joseph (of LWP) and Sean San José (who directed Angry) find their way into the material through a fluid physicality and driving beat (although actual beatboxing from Aguirre and singing by the cast are kept to a minimum). The effortless bounce and verve never gets close to the bone, though, since the relentlessly playful tone and broad if charming characterizations can’t sustain the full weight of the narrative. Straddling comedic melodrama and turned-out hip-hop performance, Fukú satisfies the requirements of neither too well, leaving its deeper themes marooned in the shallows of a fleetingly infectious celebration of outsider status.


Through June 21

Thurs-Sat, 8 p.m., $15–$25

Intersection for the Arts

446 Valencia, SF

(415) 626-3311,