Subway musicians may be just another part of the daily commutes of ordinary New Yorkers, but an undeniable aura of mystery nevertheless surrounds these oft-overlooked talents. Performing evergreen melodies on instruments ranging from steel drums to violins, letting out sweetly trembling vocal lines in foreign languages or setting up impromptu jam sessions on subway platforms, these truly independent musicians provide a soundtrack to our routines, carrying on their performances whether or not we pause to listen. We are unlikely to search for these individuals’ Twitter updates or online calendars of upcoming performances, but every once and a while, as the shriek of a passing car drowns out their melodies, we may wonder what kinds of lives they lead beyond these grimy platforms. It’s this element of curiosity that brings an added allure to vocalist Rosateresa Castro-Vargas’s one-woman show on her childhood in Puerto Rico. As her recollections of family coffee sessions give way to a deeply disturbing secret, we desire to know more than she is able to reveal in a thematically busy, roughly hour-long performance. Castro-Vargas makes no reference to her days spent singing underground, but as it draws to a close, we are left wondering how an individual with her set of experiences approaches her work as a performer.
From its first moments, Tomando Café is a tribute to the allure of domestic rituals. In the glow of dim, yellow lamps and tiny candles, the audience is asked to choose their seats at round tables, creating the illusion that we have been personally invited to share a cup of coffee with the narrator. As Castro-Vargas enters in a long, pink dress that matches her buoyant curls, she greets each audience member individually and lets out a mystical, operatic melody to describe the experience of drinking coffee. “Café,” she sings, jumping an octave and releasing the second syllable as a tingling, shimmering extension of a simple exhalation.
Interwoven with tales of her childhood community’s coffee traditions is a complex and disturbing portrait of the end of a childhood. Through seventeen short scenes, or “gulps,” Castro-Vargas narrates her experience of growing up in a world in which a young woman’s purity was so strictly revered that a fear of shame kept families from exposing situations as severe as child molestation. When Castro-Vargas recalls standing in the kitchen and attempting to make out the whispers of the family’s women in the next room, the simple phrase of “what are they hiding?” reveals layers of silent anguish.
The performance relies almost entirely on her expressive, organic voice that has a simultaneously angelic and conversational quality. Castro-Vargas’s only accompaniment is Toni Franco’s acoustic guitar, and because the intimate space reveals even the slightest errors in breathing and every imperfectly placed note, her performance is startlingly brave. By the most part, Castro-Vargas is up to the task, and displays an unpretentious magnetism that allows us to trust her. She is more a storyteller than a natural actress, however, and on occasion we notice her obviously correcting her lines after a careless start.
Priscilla Flores and Yasemin Ozumerzifon alternate in the chameleonic role of Server; they announce the start of each scene, serve coffee and crackers to audience members ("milk or sugar?"), and interact with Castro-Vargas in various scenes. On a few occasions, the character even breaks into an improvised dance and pulls audience members up to join her and Castro-Vargas on the floor. When she interacts with Castro-Vargas, her role is more to create a figurative dynamic than play the specific role of friend, mother or grandmother; in fact, she remains silent almost for the entirety of the play.
Castro-Vargas’s playful presence and light, organic style both benefit the play and work to its disadvantage. She includes several heavy-handed metaphors in the material— including Little Red Riding Hood as a molested child and Medusa as the healing goddess of anger— ultimately causing the material to become overcrowded with symbols. The play’s most powerful moment comes at the end, where a reprise of her first, seemingly carefree song suddenly contains a deep sense of sadness and regret. When she finally announces that she “[needs] some air” and steps out the door, we are left holding our breaths, but simultaneously wondering what she might say if she were asked to return to us.