Note: La Havana Madrid returns for an encore run at the Goodman Theatre July 21 to August 20, with some cast changes. Below is our original review.
Back in the 1960s and ’70s, when Lakeview was a Latino neighborhood, La Havana Madrid was its beating heart. That’s how the long-lost nightclub is presented in actor-writer Sandra Delgado’s enchanting new play-with-music at Teatro Vista, anyway, and we’re obliged to take her at her lovingly researched word. At the time Delgado’s play was announced, I could find no references to the original club online, and a search of the Chicago Tribune’s archives comes up lacking as well. Despite living in Lakeview for a decade and a half myself—and for a time, directly across the street from where La Havana Madrid sat at Belmont and Sheffield, on the second floor where Milio’s Hair Studio is located now—I had never heard of the club and couldn’t easily access evidence of its existence. So Delgado’s tribute to one of a number of Latin music clubs that served as a hub for Latino and Caribbean migrants a half-century ago serves as an act of anti-erasure.
It’s also a smartly structured, fondly rendered record of those then-new Chicagoans themselves, as presented in a series of vignettes about composite characters patronizing the club. There’s Maria (Krystal Ortiz), a “Pedro Pan” (or unaccompanied Cuban minor) who arrives here in 1961 without realizing she’ll never return to Cuba; Henry and Maruja (the terrific Tommy Rivera-Vega and Phoebe Gonzalez), winsome young newlyweds from Colombia; and Carlos (Donovan Diaz), a Puerto Rican teenager who gets caught up in the waves of gentrification. Mike Oquendo (a.k.a. comedian Mikey O) shows up as Tony Quintana, an owner of the club in its later years.
The always enthralling Cruz Gonzalez-Cadel subtly threads a story about a beauty pageant at the Aragon Ballroom into a recounting of rioting on Division Street in 1966 in response to a police shooting of a young Puerto Rican. Marvin Quijada plays a musician character who Delgado cleverly uses to connect us to the present day, while Delgado herself appears onstage as a character also named La Havana Madrid, a club singer and a kind of guiding spirit through the too-easily forgotten history of Latinx Chicago and the constant forced migration of its citizens.
“Chicago is so territorial it’s called a city of neighborhoods. Which sounds like a nice thing to put on a brochure,” one character tells us, while silently underlining the ever-shifting boundary lines that come with that seemingly benign descriptor. It wasn’t so long ago, those of us with short memories are reminded, that the tony Lincoln Park area where Teatro Vista is performing this show in Steppenwolf’s new cabaret theater was itself a poor neighborhood, with a Puerto Rican community center providing services at Halsted and Dickens. “Esta es nuestra historia,” Delgado sings repeatedly at the top of the show. “We are living on these layers,” is her refrain at its end. Good on Delgado for excavating this one.
Teatro Vista at Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s 1700 Theatre. By Sandra Delgado. Directed by Cheryl Lynn Bruce. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs; one intermission.