"The Effects of Gravity" at the Bardavon on February 16 | Theater | Hudson Valley | Chronogram Magazine

Sometimes a story is at its most powerful when it’s stripped down to the essentials: an actor on a bare stage, say, accompanied by some bluesy riffs on an acoustic guitar. If the story exposes some event or trauma related to the vicissitudes of a history of oppression, the effect can be transformative, an intimate engagement that translates something we’ve understood only intellectually into the crucible of feeling. 

Such is the case with “Finding North,” a one-man play by David Gonzalez that recounts an incident from the life of John P. Parker, a former slave who owned a foundry in Ohio and helped hundreds of slaves on their flight to freedom in the Underground Railroad. I don’t know if the play’s account of Parker’s rescue of a slave family from a white man who worked for him actually happened, but when I saw the performance at Kingston’s Old Dutch Church, back in the fall of 2022, Parker the man and the predicament he faced felt utterly authentic. The plainspoken language of the monologue, the naturalness with which actor Daniel Carlton inhabited the character of this gutsy 19th-century abolitionist, and the intricate, rootsy guitar accompaniment, which was also composed and played by Gonzalez, made the story come alive. 

By interspersing contemporary first-person narratives into Parker’s monologue, the play was also charged with historical relevance. With the aid of a simple prop, such as a scarf, baseball cap, or cane, Carlton effortlessly transformed himself into a range of characters, including a young Guatemalan woman recounting her treacherous journey north across the Rio Grande; a Pakistani teenager who was harassed by his classmates in the wake of 9/11; and a grief stricken old man recounting how as a child he watched the lynching of his sharecropper father. “Finding North,” which was commissioned by Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park to celebrate the opening of that city’s Underground Railroad Freedom Center, is currently touring theaters across the country.

Besides being a playwright, composer, and musician, Gonzalez, who resides in Rosendale, is also a storyteller, poet, and producer. His plays, musical productions, and spoken word pieces have been performed nationwide. In some cases, he has facilitated nonartists, often members of marginalized communities, in finding their own voice, which sometimes results in a production. For example, “Hard Dinero,” which was performed at the Rosendale Theatre in October 2022, consists of a series of bilingual monologues and dialogues based on immigrant stories of Ulster County residents. While some of the stories are hopeful, others, such as the young man who couldn’t escape his burden of debt and hung himself, are tragic. 

Another of Gonzalez’s locally inspired productions is the play “Falcon Ridge,” which traces the evolving relationship between a local African American couple and their new neighbor, a Jewish couple from New York City, in the 1950s; it was inspired by stories from the multiracial, isolated mountain community of Eagle’s Nest (and was performed at Old Dutch Church last March).

“Art can be impactful,” Gonzalez says. Indeed, he’s been recognized for creating performances that matter: he was a cultural ambassador for the US State Department and received a Drama Desk Nomination for Unique Theatrical Experience and a Lifetime Achievement Award for Sustained Excellence from the International Performing Arts for Youth, among other honors. 

His roots as the son of a Nuyorican mother and Cuban father growing up in the Bronx have informed much of his work. For his critically acclaimed production “!Sofrito!,” which was first performed in the 1990s, he told traditional stories from Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Bronx accompanied by salsa performed by the Latin Legends Band. Gonzalez began his career as a music therapist, working with special-needs kids. Bringing an element of playfulness into his practice, he began telling stories and performing for free at venues in his East Village neighborhood. 

That evolved into paying gigs first at schools in the New York metro area, then around the country. In the 1990s, he co-hosted “New York Kids,” a live radio show that aired on Sunday afternoons on public radio station WNYC. “I was the goof, the improvisor, the fun one,” he recalls. 

It was Gonzalez’s poem “Entanglement” that planted the seed for one of his latest projects: after meeting Luke Keller, a professor of physics and astronomy at Ithaca College, at a conference, on a hunch he showed the scientist the poem, which alludes to the phenomenon of quantum entanglement. The two decided to collaborate on a production that would tell the story of the cosmos from both a scientific and a poetic perspective. The result is “The Effects of Gravity: A Cosmic Journey, Cosmology & Art,” which will be performed at the Bardavon on February 16. (The free performances are scheduled at 10 am and 7 pm.)   

It’s a fresh approach to understanding the cosmos and Earth’s place in it, combining scientific explanations, poetry, and music with stunning images of space projected on a giant screen, which consist of photographs taken from the Hubble and James Webb telescopes as well as computer-generated simulations. The back and forth between Keller and Gonzalez about the “small flash” that alternatively birthed the cosmos and a baby daughter, about dark matter and how a mother with dementia lost her sense of time, is accompanied by the electric guitar playing of Kingston-based sound artist Alvaro Domene, which is by turns funky, edgy, and portentous and delicately lyrical. Keller remarks on the limits of our understanding as well as our amazing powers of observation: “We have a gift in that we can look back in time,” he says. And forward: in one compelling segment, a simulation depicts the merging of the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies two billion years from now. 

The piece culminates in a poem and images celebrating the rich diversity of nature on Earth, followed by photos of environmental destruction and a rap-like rant by Gonzalez lamenting the forces of greed and corruption that are threatening the planet. The audience is left with a question: “Do we integrate or disintegrate?”

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