BETSY! – a joint collaboration between Bronx-based Pregones Theater (which recently joined forces with the Puerto Rican Traveling Theater) and Kentucky-based Roadside Theater – is described as an Appalachian-Puerto Rican musical. It tells the story of Betsy Garcia, a Puerto Rican jazz singer from the Bronx, whose grief upon receiving news of her father’s death unleashes the ancestral spirits of all the Elizabeths and Betsys who have come before her. More shocking to Betsy than seeing ghosts, however, is the revelation that she is half Scots-Irish. “Y’all are definitely not my people,” she proclaims.
Co-directed by Rosalba Rolón and Dudley Cocke (Artistic Directors of Pregones/PRTT and Roadside Theater, respectively), BETSY! borrows from the aesthetics of two different companies and cultures. The result is a highly entertaining, musically rich performance that honors storytelling’s role in preserving our connection to the people and places from which we come. As Betsy (Caridad da la Luz/LA BRUJA) learns more about her Appalachian family history, she discovers themes that resonate with her Puerto Rican identity: migration, slavery, and hardships endured with the hope that future generations will have a better life. Though these themes are often the subject of tragedy, BETSY! is far from tragic. It’s a celebration.
Though its celebratory feeling may lead some New York theatergoers to dismiss the show as “superficial good fun”, don’t be mistaken: this celebration is a subversive one. A native of Appalachia, I make a point to seek out any performance or film that promises to portray my cultural heritage. These portrayals are rare outside of derogatory horror films and hillbilly comedies, and even rarer is a portrayal that acknowledges – and approves of – the pride I take in being the descendent of the Scots-Irish who settled in the hollers of the Appalachian frontier. Having not yet learned of my secret Puerto Rican heritage, I cannot say for certain, but I think the Puerto Ricans in the audience likely shared my sentiment that BETSY! was a rare gift of recognition. Together, we were celebrating the tenacity and talent of two wildly different – but not dissimilar – cultures.
Originally developed in 2002 by Roadside’s Ron Short as a one-person show about his Appalachian ancestors, BETSY! evolved through a collaboration with jazz pianist Beegie Adair before being re-conceived by the Pregones ensemble and its composer Desmar Guevara as part of an ongoing exchange with Roadside. This production includes a rap written and performed by Caridad da le Luz that blurs the line between actor and character, reality and performance, to create one of the most captivating moments of the show. Elise Santora and Pat D. Robinson, who play the visiting spirits, also bring impressive talent and commitment to their performances. It is clear that this musical is personal for everyone involved.