ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: This is On the Media. I'm Alana Casanova-Burgess. Just before Thanksgiving, hundreds of residents of Naranjito, a small town 45 minutes southwest of San Juan, were gathering in the square for a free lunch.
[SOUND OF PEOPLE CLAPPING]
The priest offered a prayer, asking for God to bless the town and the country and to bless the lunch as a new beginning.
[PRIEST PRAYING IN SPANISH]
The crowd of hundreds bowed their heads.
Then the local orchestra started to play -- [ ? ]. And, as though that weren’t enough, they also played the Game of Thrones song. [MUSIC] Solemn prayer and theme songs, but perhaps that’s to be expected. You can't live tragedy all the time.
The anthropologist Yarimar Bonilla lives in New York and she told me that she wanted to come see her homeland for herself because a lot of the coverage was so one note, so full of doom.
YARIMAR BONILLA: There should be a movie about a hurricane because it has the full range of emotion. You know, so you have fear, but you also have anger, ‘cause you’re closed in tight spaces with your family, you know. And, and there's love and there's probably passion and, you know, romance and all of that. You know, so I’ve been asking people, what was the funniest thing that happened during the hurricane, what was the most creative thing that they've come up with? All of that humanity, I think, was missing from the reporting that just treats Puerto Ricans as this kind of victim or survivors, okay, but still they’re more than that, you know? They’re also jokesters, they’re also wives and husbands and cousins and daughters and grandchildren.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: Full disclosure, Yarimar had invited me to a comedy show in San Juan by a group called Teatro Breve. There were sketches and stand up and some improve, nearly all related to life after Maria. And it was wonderfully funny, so wonderful that I got Brooke on the line with one of the performers.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Lucienne Hernandez is with the comedy group, Teatro Breve. They recently did a run of sold-out performances called “After Maria.” Lucienne, welcome to On the Media.
LUCIENNE HERNANDEZ: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So the show starts the night after Maria in the living room of a couple getting ready for the storm, and you play the woman who’s freaking out and trying to prepare. And her partner is downloading [LAUGHS] shows on Netflix.
LUCIENNE HERNANDEZ: [LAUGHS] It gets a lot of laughs.
[CLIP OF SHOW IN SPANISH]
You know, I don’t want to make it a gender thing but, apparently, a lot of guys were just downloading Netflix as well. All the women were, you know, trying to get ready.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Right. I know that trying to explain a joke is death to comedy, but would you walk us through a specific joke or a line that you just love that just gets a huge laugh and makes you laugh?
LUCIENNE HERNANDEZ: I think that the biggest laugh that we get, there is a guy and a woman and there is this neighbor who has the generator. He has it all, you know, he knows it all.
[JOKE IN SPANISH/AUDIENCE LAUGHTER]
And he visits the day before Maria. He starts telling the guy, mm, is that car yours?
[MAN TELLING JOKE IN SPANISH]
I see that tree that is there that it might hit your car. Just put it in my parking space that is better than yours. But he’s like, no, no, no, no, no, we don’t need help, thank you. And then he left them a walkie-talkie but he’s like, you know, the signals, they’re gonna go bad.
[JOKE CONTINUES IN SPANISH, AUDIENCE LAUGHTER]
And the guy is like, are you kidding me? He starts laughing, like, how can the cell phones go bad? You know, you’re so crazy, man. And so, in the night of the storm when the tree hits the car, the last thing that you hear is through the walkie-talkie the neighbor is saying, [ ? ] the tree fell down like I told you. [LAUGHING]
[LOUD AUDIENCE LAUGHTER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] So basically, you perform observations about the storm, like when your partner comes home from shopping for supplies for the storm and he only has a gallon of water and a six-pack of beer.
[AUDIENCE LAUGHTER/PERFORMANCE IN SPANISH]
Now, we know in hindsight how long people have had to rely on bottled water. Are a lot of these jokes about planning badly for something that turns out to be far worse than anyone could have imagined?
LUCIENNE HERNANDEZ: Yes, I think that Puerto Ricans, we think that we know how to get ready for a storm because we have hurricane season every year. I think that this one, no one was really ready for it. Even the person that went to Costco [LAUGHS] and bought just a huge amount of things, it wasn't enough. It was actually too soon to laugh for a long time.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How long do you need before you can laugh?
LUCIENNE HERNANDEZ: I think that we personally were kind of depressed [LAUGHS], each one of us, but people in the streets were like, I know you [ ? ], you know, I know you’re coming up with something very soon. So I think that we as performers used this, I think, as a therapy, and people also. And that’s the relationship that we have with our audience, trying to laugh about the situation, you know, that’s part of our culture, that's just how we are.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I’m curious, in your show, you also play a recording of the hurricane.
[WIND SOUNDS/HURRICANE MARIA]
LUCIENNE HERNANDEZ: We had to put it there because we all felt it. That sound was the same for everyone. My sister doesn't live in Puerto Rico and I was texting with her when that hurricane sound was going on, and I saved a text that I sent her. It’s like, our house is gonna be okay. Puerto Rico is gonna be a wreck --
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
LUCIENNE HERNANDEZ: -- ‘cause, you know, this is just destroying the island.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The group performed in Chicago after the hurricane. Since the jokes are so specific to this Puerto Rican experience, how did the jokes land?
LUCIENNE HERNANDEZ: There were a lot of Puerto Ricans there and suffering [LAUGHS] a lot, from what I saw. You know, having family here that they haven't seen, everyone was like, you know, can you take this to my mother, you know, have you seen this person or whatever? So I think that they cried more than they laughed because, you know, they weren’t here, even though sometimes we resent that they [LAUGHS] weren’t here and it’s like, you know, you’re not suffering the way we are suffering, man! We can make jokes about it because it’s like with family. In your family, you can joke about things but someone from outside comes and you're not gonna get away with laughing about other things. Just us can make fun of ourselves.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS]
LUCIENNE HERNANDEZ: Every Puerto Rican has -- you know, has prepared for a hurricane. All the, the warnings that we get and all the hurricane watch, we get them every year. So I'm sure that a lot of people from there were through Georges or Hugo, you know, two big hurricanes that were here before. We joke about, you know, they think they know but they don’t know. [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] How long can you live without electricity, with the -- some schools being closed? How long can that go on before you can’t joke about it anymore onstage?
LUCIENNE HERNANDEZ: People who writes are writing, people who paint are painting. People who do comedy, we’re going to be ironic about it and we are going to put it out there. This is just our way to cope with the situation, but it has never been funny.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Lucienne, thank you very much.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
LUCIENNE HERNANDEZ: Thank you for having me. [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Lucienne Hernandez is with Teatro Breve, a comedy group based in San Juan. You can find their videos on their Facebook page.