A man dances salsa in silhouette, then bobs and weaves like a fighter in the ring, backed by a tight piano trio. Lights up; Joe Orrach turns and tells us, “When I was 17, I signed a contract with the U.S. Air Force for the next four years of my life. After three, they decided they had enough. I could’ve told them that after a week!”
Joe proceeds to show us what “enough” means over the next hour or so, as he dances, feints and jabs, complains and exults, talks to us about and just plain shows his early days, relentlessly, with passion and humor in his solo act, In My Corner.
The show runs for another weekend at the new Black Box Theatre, Oakland School for the Arts’ new stage in the uptown Fox Theatre complex on 19th Avenue, just off Telegraph.
Solo shows, autobiographical solo shows—ethnic identity autobiographic solo shows—have become a staple, even a cliché in American performance. But Joe Orrach shows what it is to be Puerto Rican-Italian, from the Bronx transplanted to Long Island, with such engagement—and so many arrows in his quiver, strings to his bow—that he has us reacting to his very synapses as they fire nervous impulses. To tell is to instantly re-enact, to re-experience a life.
Constantly changing tempo, breaking up the rhythm, telling us one thing as he does something else in counterpoint, Joe puts it across by bringing us into his activity, even as he’s describing it. Not illustrating one by the other, but setting a whole series of acts in motion by a recited fact or image. An image itself has been defined as a complex, and In My Corner. compounds those complexities into what would be merely a tour-de-force if it weren’t so close to the bone, yet higher than a kite. It’s truly a show, continuous entertainment, its infectious spirit telegraphed by the rapture of the performer.
All the perceptions and sensitivities are there, from memory, brought alive with relish: the family scene, the food, his parents dancing—and when he’s praised for winning a twist contest, his father demurring, “His timing’s off. Watch me and my wife. Please,” as they writhe to Tito Puente.
Joe’s characterization of his father colors the show as much as his own impulsive delivery: his father teaching him how to shave, and talking about romance and marital disappointment, breaking into a rendition of “Besame Mucho.” Or putting up a speedbag in the basement (there’s one in a rollaround frame onstage) and teaching his boys boxing (“My father didn’t have much patience; in fact, he had no patience at all.”). Or shouting out instructions and imprecations to the P.R. boxer on TV, losing to Ballentine Ale by a knockdown. Or confronting the coach at school for punishing Joe for a misdemeanor while letting his non-Puerto Rican accomplices off easy—and beating the system.
In My Corner. takes us up through Joe’s initiation into The Sweet Science—though opening the metal doors into the gym, he falls backwards at the stench—and a gripping first bout, after which he’s almost assassinated, thought to be “a whitey from Long Island.” It tails off with disappointment, estrangement even, until he changes his shoes, learning “so that’s how you do it!”—with a sensational tap routine to salsa, that burns on into curtain call and an encore.
It’s a great solo show, with a great performer giving his all. And, like anything else, a few others have been crucial: Joe’s co-writer, Lizbeth Hasse; his director and dynamic lighting designer, the ubiquitous Jim Cave (of Laney College as well as everywhere else); and three tremendous musicians: pianist and music director Matthew Clark, drummer Micha Noor Patri and bassist Eugene Warren.
IN MY CORNER
8 p.m. tonight (Thursday) through Saturday, and 7 p.m. Sunday at the New Black Box Theatre, Oakland School of the Arts (in the Fox Theatre building), 531 19th St. at Telegraph, Oakland. $28 ($10 student discount), benefit for the school. (415) 433-4380. www.joeorrach.com.