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“Evolution of a Sonero”: A Salsa-Hip-Hop Epic Takes On Chicago

Written by on October 21, 2022

Flaco Navaja by Martin Cohen, courtesy Jay Kelly PR.

NH: Miranda, I know you said… “We need to make sure to give Flaco his flowers.” You wanted to come on, you wanted to tell people things that he’s done. I do want you to share that, but I also want you to share how the two of you ended up collaborating and bringing this production here? 

MG: That is a great question. So, the theater community is actually very small. Though people may think or feel that we are siloed, we’re actually not. There was a moment where the producer, who had produced his show before and his workshops before, Rosalba Rolón — who I always like to mention because she is like a mentor to me — who runs Pregones Theater in New York — which is one of the largest East Coast theaters, Latinx-only, on that side of town — was like, “Hey, I have a person. I think he’s wonderful. And you have to produce him.”

There’s just something about working with your mentor, your elder, who’s like, “You have to produce somebody,” that you listen. You’re like, “Okay, it’ll be done!” She was like, “He’s great. He’s phenomenal… he’s moved to Chicago.” And I was like, “Don’t tell me: Flaco.” Because Flaco and I had met through another producer. So we had already met — what, the year before? … We were talking, and… sometimes there’s moments where you meet somebody, and you’re like, “This person is worth the investment. This person should be the person that we produce next.” A lot of what UrbanTheater [Company] does is — our tagline is, “From the streets to the stage.” And Flaco’s narrative really fit within that tagline. 

We came together that way. I am shocked that he trusted me as much as he did, because he has been about the world and has worked with some pretty big names… And he was like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah! Here you go, here’s everything.” I was like, “Wow, this is nice!” It felt very easy. And it felt like there was immediate trust. I don’t know how that happened, that’s the part that I still haven’t figured out. Sometimes I’m like, “Perhaps it’s just energies that are like, ‘This makes sense’?” And we brought it in, we knew that it was a story that our community at Humboldt Park would enjoy in love. And that’s really much how it’s been received. So I would say that’s how we came about.

NH: No, it’s such a great story. And for a minute, we could talk about the band, the Razor Blades. Oh my gosh, they are so amazing. 

MG: I love them, and Flaco actually curated them. Again, I feel like this process, for me — I can only speak for myself — took trust in a different direction for me. I honestly have not worked with another artist that has trusted me this much, with a piece that they’ve already done, and it was a really reciprocal feeling. When he was like, “I could put together this band.” I was like, “He could put together the band. I don’t have to find anybody!” He curated the band and really was like, “They’re gonna be great.” And I just trusted it. 

And I do have to say, in the history of my directing and producing, I don’t trust people that often. I’m always like, “I don’t know if this person is gonna do what I need them to do.” But, for some reason, with Flaco, I was like, “He’s got it! It’s all gonna work out.” And it did! And they’re amazing. They are amazing, and they’re young, and they’re fresh and they play all over Chicago. Yesterday they went from one gig to another. They were at Hubbard Inn, our conga player and our bass player, Brian Rivera, plays the timbales. He is known all over town, anybody that we say timbales, they’re like, “Oh, I hope it’s Brian.” It’s like, “It is Brian, thank God!” 

So they have made a name for themselves and being in this production and marrying music, musicians that are… the way that I love theater is the way that they love music. Having that combination for me, with them, is really quite electrifying. For just me, as a producer. 

FN: I think what’s cool about it is that they also connect with the material. So… for them, it seems like it’s not their normal kind of gig. It’s not them just playing songs, disconnected from the thing. They’re a part of the story… It was important for me to give them ownership of the piece, as well. This isn’t just my show, and you’re playing tunes with me. It was important for me to have a rapport with each one of those musicians, for them to have relationships amongst themselves, as well. So it’s not just this assembled group of players, and then, when it’s done, everybody just bounces. Like, we have a good time. We’re backstage cracking up.

Flaco Navaja and the Razor Blades during the Sept. 30 performance of “Evolution of a Sonero.”
Photo by Victoria Sanders, courtesy Jay Kelly PR.

NH: You can tell! Could you tell us about… because even some of the instruments, I didn’t even know. I’m like, “I don’t know what that is, but he’s playing the hell out of it.” I’m like, “He’s doing the thing!” So can you introduce everyone? 

FN: The Razor Blades are a five-piece salsa band. Bass, piano, congas, Latin percussion and timbales, and then a trombone player. 

NH: Oh my gosh, he was so good! I mean, they were all amazing, but I specifically noticed that trombone player,

FN: It’s a small band that packs a big sound. And we’re having a blast.

NH: When you guys came together to develop this and put it out, were you nervous about how the audience was gonna respond? I know you made a joke, and you’re like, “Even though he’s from New York… we gotta give him a chance!” I gotta love that. I loved when you made that joke opening night, I thought that was so funny. But especially being new here, did it feel different than the way you performed it before?

FN: I chose to come to Humboldt Park because it felt like home when I first visited it. So, to be completely honest, I at no point felt like this wasn’t going to be received. This is, yes, it’s a story about someone that grew up in the Bronx, but it’s a universal story. It’s about the human condition… People from Humboldt Park can relate to those same stories, because they’ve gone through a lot of these same things. A lot of times, when I meet people that grew up in Chicago, specifically in Humboldt Park or areas like that, I feel like we lived a parallel existence. I feel like New York and Chicago are the same city in a different multiverse.

NH: Yeah.

MG: Yeah, I would agree with that. I would agree with that, 100%. As a Chicago born and raised person, I always called New York my sibling city. Because when I go to New York, the people, everything feels still like I’m with my own community. And that’s the other part of it, too, is I think what I would want to elevate is… the way that Flacco has embedded himself within that community. So when people come to see his show, they also know that he lives in the neighborhood. They know they’re gonna see him around. They say hello to him. He’s competing very well with our executive director Ivan Vega as the mayor of Humboldt Park. So Flaco walks down the street, and everybody’s like, “Hey! Hey!” So I really do agree with that, 100%. It does feel like we are a part of a different multiverse. Yeah, sorry, we’re nerding out on Marvel.

NH: No, no, no! I mean, look, everyone loves a good Marvel reference. Miranda, before we started this interview, you were telling me some of the things that Flaco has done in the past.

MG: Yes, because I do think… I know that he says he can fake vulnerability, I also am like, “But you’re also pretty humble.” Because he doesn’t lead with his resume, the way that I’ve met other folks lead with their resume. It’s like, you meet him and you’re like, “Oh, okay, this is —”

NH: That’s always a refreshing thing, by the way. Oh my gosh, people that lead with their resume. You’re like, “Alright, I’m just trying to chill. I’m just trying to relax right now.”

FN: “Tone it down, tone it down.”

Nudia Hernandez: “I’m not working right now, let’s, please.”

MG: Flaco, right now, his voice is on “Alma’s Way” on PBS. He sings the opening theme song. He has been on Def Poetry Jam with Russell Simmons four times, has toured with the show through the years. That was one of my favorite shows, so I actually am fangirling a little bit, just when I met him, and I was trying to play cool. Because I had already known what he had done, and I was like, “I’m not gonna say anything. I’m gonna pretend.” And he’s worked with Lin Manuel [Miranda], his voice was on the movie “In the Heights.” Anybody who tells me, like, “Oh, yeah, Lin sent me a text.” I’m like, “Oh, wow.” That’s someone who is definitely well-connected within, or is able to really make a career out of this, which is something I really respect. 

I feel like, knowing that he’s had such longevity in this world — he just came back from, when we were doing it, you had to go to Puerto Rico one of the weekends because the government of Puerto Rico called him up and was like, “Can you write a poem about Roberto Clemente? We’re gonna do this video.” He shot it in a weekend, we had to maneuver. Luckily, I think I was out that weekend, too, in rehearsals.

So Flaco is consistently working. And I don’t think that people know, just because you see someone in a smaller theater — which we choose to be intimate on purpose, it’s something that’s very intentional — doesn’t mean that that person doesn’t have that type of career sustainability. Flaco has been around, Flaco is working with folks who are in the industry, who people know more because they have better publicists. So right now, I guess, I’m being his publicist.

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