Karina Casiano in 'Rootless'

Karina Casiano, 'Rootless'

Early in her performance of Rootless: La No-Nostalgia, Karina Casiano welcomes the audience with familiarity, as if we all have shared a similar universal experience: that of migrants who have left their native country (or home town) for the promise of a new and better life elsewhere. Casiano’s immediate intimacy links audiences of varied genders, ethnicities, and backgrounds together to experience her multicultural one-woman show.

Rootless, also written by Casiano, is part of the seventh annual soloNOVA Arts Festival at Performance Space 122 in NYC. In her sexy bilingual musical cabaret concert, Casiano combines American folk and pop with tango and Cuban “son” (with help from piano accompanist Broc Hempel) to tell a moving story about the emotional life of immigrants — and the unavoidable loss of cultural and personal identity that often leads to confusion and loneliness.

“I never really considered myself an immigrant,” Casiano says. “It always sounded to me like that word meant that you wanted to stay in this new country forever. I have traveled much throughout my life and lived in many places, so I never think that I am going to stay anywhere permanently. Ironically, I have stayed in New York longer than anywhere else. I have been ‘rootless’ for a long time.”

Through songs sung in both English and Spanish (with translations for both displayed on a large screen behind her), Casiano plays a confused immigrant who cannot help but forget her past, her accent, and her identity the longer she lives away from home. Yet the longer she stays away, the harder it is to go back. And whenever she returns to her homeland, she realizes anew why she left in the first place — and why she can never truly go “home.”

“I began thinking that maybe I, too, was an immigrant — and that I have lived away from my country for so long that I often don’t recognize myself there,” she adds. “So I decided to take the attitude of these brave people. I live in this country, I work, I contribute, and I have a say in what happens. The subtitle ‘La No-Nostalgia’ conveys that feeling: remember who you are but also grow, contribute, and move on.”

Karina Casiano in 'Rootless'

Karina Casiano, 'Rootless'

Casiano begins her performance dressed in a suit, gradually shedding her jacket, blouse, and slacks throughout the show to reveal a more revealing — and feminine — leotard underneath. This subtle gender transformation may signify the often emasculating process of immigration, by which migrant people suddenly find themselves subservient in a new environment due to language and cultural barriers. But the immigrants themselves are not without blame in Casiano’s eyes.

“I believe that in many ways the people who have to migrate have been betrayed by their own countries,” Casiano says. “We allow corruption and hypocrisy, both individual and institutional, to reign in our homelands, and then we go elsewhere and submissively subscribe to their laws and culture. We learn to despise ourselves in the process, and accept essential changes that I believe come from an inferiority complex long instilled in us.

“That said,” she adds, “I defend the right of all people to move out, and I believe it’s one of the most enriching experiences anyone can have. It should be mandatory to spend a few years away from what you know. If only everyone did it by choice.”

Casiano’s beautiful and powerful singing voice makes the heartbreaking moments in Rootless all the more affecting: Her mother calls from Puerto Rico, but soon questions why her daughter now sounds so different since she has been living in America. And in one song, a mother asks her child, “What did you learn in school today?,” only to be dismayed that the patriotic lessons and values her son has been taught clash violently with her own, different, cultural upbringing.

“I hope to make spectators consider the point of view of the delivery boy and the old lady who cleans up their office after work,” Casiano says. “And I hope that telling their story appeals to our humanity and helps us all lay down our guard against each other. I also hope that Rootless inspires those who have migrated to be the best they can be, wherever they are, and to never be submissive.”

Rootless is Casiano’s third one-woman show. She began working on the piece in 2006 and it was first presented in April 2008 in NYC; this summer, Casiano will take Rootless on the road to the VIII Festival Internacional de Cabaret in Mexico City. “I cannot wait to share this show with Mexicans in their country,” she says. Her two previous solo shows, Que Me Trajiste?: Cabaret Boricua and Colonia 2007, Casiano says, “dealt with the confusing effects of the ambiguous political relationship between the U.S. and my native Puerto Rico,” and were presented in Puerto Rico, Cuba, Ecuador, Peru, Chile, Argentina, and NYC.

“Karina’s show has been so timely with everything going on in Arizona right now,” says soloNOVA artistic director Jennifer Conley Darling. “Where is home after you’ve left what you know and come to this land of America?”

soloNOVA

soloNOVA, produced by terraNOVA Collective, “celebrates innovative individuals who push the boundaries of what it means to be an artist, aims to redefine the solo form, and uniquely invigorates the audience through the time-honored tradition of storytelling.”

‘Rootless: La No-Nostalgia’ performs May 14, 16 & 20 at 7 p.m. and May 22 at 2 p.m. at Performance Space 122, 150 First Ave. (at 9th St.), as part of the seventh annual soloNOVA Arts Festival, which runs through May 22. For more info about soloNOVA and to purchase tickets, visit the soloNOVA website.

Read about the soloNOVA opening night performance of Binding, Jesse Zaritt’s solo dance theater piece,  here; and also read about the soloNOVA opening night performances of Remission and Monster here. Back Stage is a sponsor of the soloNOVA Arts Festival.

This story was posted online May 12, 2010 at Blog Stage.

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