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Bees & Honey

Theatre Review by Kimberly Ramírez - May 22, 2023

Xavier Pacheco and Maribel Martinez
Photo by Julieta Cervantes
One hundred and fifty blocks south of Dyckman Street, inside MCC Theater, a Washington Heights apartment is simulated in a striking set by Shoko Kambara with original scenic artwork by Daniel Peguero. The environment's flat dimensions feature a ground mural at the stage's apron and a utility door mural upstage left, vibrant paintings of Dominican signifiers (tropical plants, umbrella, el diablo cojuelo, güiro, greca cafetera...) morphing into New York City skylines along the edges of its wooden floor planking. The audience for Guadalís Del Carmen's Bees & Honey, developed with The Sol Project, views the play's action through this lens of layered landscapes, a surreal visual overlay of aquí y allá [here and there] during this otherwise hyperrealistic domestic two-hander.

Bees & Honey is an intimate chronicle of a Dominican-American couple, Manuel (Xavier Pacheco) and Johaira (Maribel Martinez), who come to occupy the apartment. An expository opening sequence first dramatizes their meet-cute at a Dyckman Street club where Manuel frequently finds "fly mamis" while newcomer Johaira, celebrating with friends on the day of her law school graduation, finds the same place "sketchy." Compelled by an intense physical attraction ignited by Juan Luis Guerra's classic Bachata Rosa hit "Como Abeja al Panal" [Like a bee to the honeycomb], they simultaneously declare "he's the one"/"she's the one." The pair becomes inseparable, despite differing perceptions regarding work, class, marriage, morals, gender roles, education and ambitions.

With intimacy and fight direction by Teniece Divya Johnson and special choreography by Mayte Natalio, Pacheco and Martinez deliver profoundly physical performances to express fierce attraction, deep devotion, and a playful willingness to compromise while ingrained habits and mounting family pressures reinforce their characters' differences. Determined to thrive, Manuel plans to expand his car shop business while staying in "The Heights till I die," while Johaira aspires to be Chief Deputy District Attorney "movin' on up" (actually, down) to the Upper East Side. Though he entertains Johaira's efforts to transform typical machismo mindsets, Manuel remains conditioned by toxic tropes and misogynistic stereotypes. One of Manuel's most incendiary claims comes while Johaira prepares a case to defend an assault survivor: "You wear something short and tight, drink a lot, be all flirty and shit, it's like you're asking for it." Manny sometimes cooperates with Johaira's imposing correctives and even becomes acquainted with theories by bell hooks and Audre Lorde, but does he truly possess the will to change? Is Johaira a "control freak," or is she only trying to control oppressive ideologies that subjugate women? If the couple remains together, would they destroy each other–or help destroy a cycle of patriarchal dogma for future generations?

Skillfully directed by Melissa Crespo, the play's explosive two-person dialogue feels consistently activated by immediate, unseen identities. When Manuel's ailing and judgmental mother moves in, her presence looms just beyond the door mural. Occupying the concealed bedroom where the couple used to copulate, the mother's offstage realm is represented by sounds of bell-ringing demands and blasted snippets of "Caso Cerrado" emanating from her TV (sound design by Germán Martínez). A video gaming headset serves as a portal for Manuel to converse with his "boys" (male peers); sexist statements absorbed through the earpiece are regurgitated into the microphone, perpetuating harmful gender dynamics and literally representing the voice in one's head. Abuses of power become amplified when an alliance between fraternity brothers corrupts justice in the trial of the assault survivor Johaira represents, triggering a trajectory of related tragedies. Boundaries overlain between public and private domains, family and community, and past and present, continually serve to sustain or challenge inherited and ingrained practices. While we anticipate a resolution for Manuel and Johaira, the play's bold and ambiguous conclusion implies that the power to shape such futures lies within each individual–including we spectators.

Bees & Honey
Through June 11, 2023
MCC Theater in partnership with The Sol Project
511 W. 52nd St., New York NY
Tickets online and current performance schedule: