From left, Ramón Ramos Alayo, DJ Leydis and Paul S. Flores — pictured in front of the Mission Makeover Mural by Lucia Ippolito and Tirso Araiza — appear in the premiere “We Have Iré” at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts on May 10-12. (Photo by Tommy Lau/Courtesy YBCA)

‘We Have Iré’ shines light on local Afro-Cuban artists

Performers share stories of success in playwright Paul S. Flores’ multi-media premiere

San Francisco playwright and performance artist Paul S. Flores didn’t have to go far to find inspiration for “We Have Iré,” his world-premiere multimedia show commissioned by Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

He based it on people he knows in the Bay Area’s rich, active Afro-Cuban artistic community, most particuarly DJ Leydis, an Oakland resident who fled Cuba to find success in the U.S.

“She crossed the ocean on a little raft and was lost at sea for two days; a storm came, she thought she would die, she prayed to Yemaya (African mother archetype, Cuban goddess of the ocean), who calmed the storm and shined a light in the dark until she finally reached Key West. She took a Greyhound bus by herself from Miami to San Francisco,” he says.

She met with her friend, filmmaker Eli Jacobs-Fantauzzi, got involved in the local hip-hop scene, and nine years later, performed in the White House for Barack Obama.

Her amazing, miraculous journey is the foundation around which Flores created the music, dance and spoken-word show, which opens at YBCA Forum on Friday.

Flores, a professor of theater at University of San Francisco, says he purposely didn’t focus solely on immigrants’ struggles (documented in previous works) in developing the show.

With the title word iré, which means “blessed with positive energy” in Lucumí, an Afro-Cuban language, the production is a celebration in which artists “have space to tell their stories on their own terms.”

Along with Nene, the hip-hop DJ based on DJ Leydis, the show’s additional three characters also are based on real people — all appearing in the production.

DJ Leydis will supply contemporary sounds; New York-based actor Christin Eve Cato plays her character who makes the harrowing boat trip.

Likewise, Yosvany Terry, a Grammy-nominated saxophone player, composer, bandleader and teacher brings his music to the stage. His character Jony, a young musician who leaves his family in Camaguey for Havana, to fulfill his dream of playing jazz, is played by Denmis Bain.

Playing versions of themselves are dancer-choreographer Ramón Ramos Alayo, founder of Alayo Dance Company and the CubaCaribe dance festival, as Monchi, a tall guy with braids and a cowboy hat who’s grateful that the Cuban revolution provided him art education; and Flores, as Christian, a Cuban-American poet living in San Francisco, who’s curious about his Cuban roots and has family in Cuba.

At an early rehearsal in the Mission, assistant director Leyma Lopez led the cast through a line-reading of the 80-minute bilingual (English and Spanish) show, minus its plentiful dance and music.

Noting that the 80-minute production “includes all of the different styles you can imagine, from traditional Afro-Cuban jazz to contemporary club music,” Flores says English-only speakers who don’t want to read supertitles won’t have a huge problem understanding the show’s message.

“The music and dance give access to the feelings and emotions, he says, “You can still enjoy it even if you can’t understand the Spanish.”

IF YOU GO

We Have Iré

Where: Yerba Buena Cente for the Arts Forum, 701 Mission St., S.F.

When: 7:30 p.m. May 10-11, 2 p.m. May 12

Tickets: $20 to $30

Contact: (415) 978-2787, ybca.org

Note: Complementary free programming on May 11 includes a dance session at 11 a.m., lecture by Yosvany Terry at 2:30 p.m. and film by Eli Jacobs-Fantauzzi at 5:30 p.m.

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