Photo:Michael Palma

The Smell of Popcorn 

Li Cornfeld | New York University

The Smell of Popcorn. Written by José Luis Ramos Escobar. Directed by Jorge B. Merced. Teatro IATI and World Players, Inc. Paradise Factory Theatre. New York, NY. 10 September 2010.

How do the conventions of a memory play inform contemporary narratives of urban crime? José Luis Ramos Escobar’s play The Smell of Popcorn examines theft, violence, and social unrest by depicting a college theater student’s defense against a would-be rapist who breaks into her apartment in the middle of the night. Although the play takes place almost entirely during the hours of the attack, it is framed by questions of futurity and memory. What resonances might such an encounter create?

Photo: Michael Palma

Javier E. Gomez as Georgie and Luciana Faulhaber as Fabiola in The Smell of Popcorn (2010)

Photo: Michael Palma

Based on the experience of one of Ramos Escobar’s former students, The Smell of Popcorn bends the traditional parameters of memory plays, which historically dramatize incidents in the playwright’s own life. With Tennessee Williams’ Glass Menagerie as an exemplar of the form, memory plays provide playwrights a structure in which to create reparative readings of their own personal histories. Difficult details of their lives become, through the dramaturgical process, not simply happier but more purposeful. Memory plays enact poetic justice.

By deploying those conventions in a two-person power struggle of a play, however, The Smell of Popcorn complicates notions of justice both poetic and social. Much of the tense, intermission-less play is spent challenging the characters’ dynamic as aggressor/victim. Georgie (Javier E. Gómez) is, at best, a desperate young man who turns to petty theft; at worst, a violent criminal. Fabiola (Luciana Faulhaber), the dramatic stand-in for Ramos Escobar’s former student, has enough empathy (or liberal guilt) to recognize the structural violence that limits his access to so-called honest work. What is social justice? Over the course of their time together, Fabiola comes to recognize how the socioeconomic forces which bluntly shape Georgie’s life also inform her own; when he discovers her rent money, she is quick to tell him it technically belongs to her landlord.

Photo: Michael Palma

Javier E. Gomez as Georgie and Luciana Faulhaber as Fabiola

Photo: Michael Palma

When The Smell of Popcorn made its New York premiere this fall as a joint production of Teatro IATI and World Players, Inc., director Jorge B. Merced emphasized the construction of memory as integral to Ramos Escobar’s script. A canonical play in Puerto Rico, The Smell of Popcorn’s translation into English appears to have had less of an impact on the production than did its creative distance from the incident on which the play is based; its original production team, including director Mario Colón, was close with the woman whose story the play tells. A greater removal from the original encounter perhaps has freed the Merced production to question to whom the memory of the play belongs, and moreover, the impact of that ownership on the play’s narrative.

In a traditional memory play, with material drawn from the playwright’s autobiography, audiences are invited to identify with the protagonist/playwright. The Smell of Popcorn is noteworthy for its conscious decision to present both characters as subjects deserving of sympathy and worthy of identification. Having grown up in a poor neighborhood in Ponce, Ramos Escobar explained after a New York performance, he knew a lot of Georgies. Indeed, the script stakes a “there but for the grace of god…” position toward both of its characters. Still, the story came from Ramos Escobar’s student, and he makes the story squarely hers: she gets the first word and the last one, too.

Photo: Michael Palma

Luciana Faulhaber as Fabiola

Photo: Michael Palma

The Smell of Popcorn opens to Fabiola alone, practicing her lines as Desdemona for a college play and closes with her own summation of the memory: a visceral conflation of her attacker with the fictional Othello. Perhaps the greatest intervention the New York production makes occurs in those opening and closing moments; Merced places Gomez, as Georgie, onstage alongside Faulhaber as Fabiola at the play’s beginning and ending. Or else, in those moments, they are the actors Gomez and Faulhaber, not quite in character. The New York production refuses to fully explain in whose perspective the story is wrapped – and, in so doing, more fully extends that perspective to the audience. Both characters could stake a claim of victimhood; both characters reject that status. What poetic justice, then, can dramaturgy offer them? The Smell of Popcorn suggests that a solution lies in removing the individual burden of the memory itself, unraveling the struggle over ownership and authenticity. This memory plays on the collective consciousness of its theatrical audience: poetic justice for all.

Li Cornfeld has an M.A. in performance studies from New York University, where she recently completed a thesis on memory and grief in new media. Last summer she studied memorial and ghosting in performance documentation at the Summer Institute in Performance Studies at Northwestern University. She contributes theater criticism as staff writer for the web journal Offoffonline.