Have you ever experienced a production where the first thing you noticed was the smell of the room?
Walking into the Colony Theatre to see Viva la Parranda!, an immersive musical celebrating the rich culture of the Afro-Venezuelan town of El Clavo, you’ll be instantly hit with the unmistakable aroma of sancocho, accompanied by a large steaming pot in the center of the stage.
This hearty Latin American stew’s recipe varies by region but is typically made with whatever meat, potatoes, and vegetables are on hand. It's cooked for hours until the many flavors are married in perfect harmony.
But most important, sancocho is about family. For the citizens of El Clavo, a rural town in Barlovento, 70 miles east of Caracas, it’s a chance to connect with neighbors and community where no one is a stranger.
The Miami New Drama production, running through May 19, captures the spirit of the town through singer Betsayda Machado and La Parranda el Clavo, a real-life eight-person party band from a small village in Barlovento.
Lauded by the New York Times as “the kind of group that world-music fans have always been thrilled to discover,” the band has been taking the globe by storm, playing its tambor music across the United States and Europe. The vivacious folk songs are filled with love and sorrow for the bandmates' country as it faces a devastating humanitarian crisis.
El Clavo is a town rich with families of cocoa farmers and descendants of slaves, and their songs carry the spirit of their diverse lineage.
“My father is black; my mother is a native Indian. Since I was a little girl, I wanted to be purely black, but I was born beige,” Machado says in the play. “Though we’re a mix of black, Indian, and Spanish blood, we carry our blackness with pride in Barlovento.”
“Am I Venezuelan? Am I African? I would like to know where I am from,” asks bandmate Oscar Ruiz, a cocoa trader.
“I am the son of Maria Ruíz, a cocoa harvester; grandson of Antonia Ruíz, a cocoa worker; great-grandson of Juanita Ruíz, another cocoa harvester, born from the rape committed to her mother, Clara Ruíz, by the white owner of the plantain farm where she worked at the end of the 1800s,” he shares in the show.
“To speak of Barlovento is to speak of blackness, of tambor music, of cocoa, and of witchcraft.”
The show follows the members of the band as they learn the results of DNA tests they took with their families to trace their African ancestors' origins. Their homelands include Senegal, Cameroon, Nigeria, and Guinea-Bissau.
Because they have no easy access to banks, universities, stores, and other conveniences, the citizens of El Clavo have struggled to get ahead financially. “We are full of talent and heart, yet we’re not on Wikipedia,” Machado jokes.
The one thing they’ve always had is music, many falling in love with it through church or school, where they use cans as makeshift drums. A parranda band doesn’t need a formal occasion to break into song and dance. They celebrate whether it’s Christmas or a funeral, inviting everyone to join and sing along.
“All year is a parranda — we don’t need an excuse to celebrate,” Machado says.
Back home, the band can be found going door-to-door and singing in neighbors' homes as it zigzags through town.
Though they dance with audience members, play basketball, and share the recipe for their beloved stew in the charming play, the castmates also tell haunting anecdotes of losing innocent loved ones to gun violence in their beloved town.
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By the end of the show, the aroma of the stew still permeates the room, tantalizing the audience with a taste of the Venezuelan village. To the surprise of theatergoers, the group invites them to come up and savor the delicious soup.
Viva la Parranda! is authentic, charming, and filled with life in every line, song, and story.
For Miami audiences, this is a chance to sing and dance onstage with a parranda and taste some unforgettable sancocho.
Viva la Parranda! 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday through May 19 at the Colony Theatre, 1040 Lincoln Rd., Miami Beach. Tickets cost $35 to $65 via colony.org.