‘Daphne’s Dive’ at Signature is a comfort and a joy

The story of folks who choose to be committed to each other’s well-being, the play is a paean to the possibility of connection.

“I miss that woman like the Devil misses heaven.”
— Daphne, speaking of her deceased mother

Talk about blessed assurance. Daphne’s Dive, now playing at Signature Theatre in Shirlington, pushes back forcefully against our temptation to isolate in scary times. What we see in this play is the opposite of isolation. It’s a paean to the possibility and the endurance of connections even when those connections may sometimes be a source of hurt. Daphne’s Dive encourages us, and it is a comfort and a joy to watch. In addition, anyone who makes the effort of going to see this show will be rewarded with the exhilaration and inspiration that come with watching masterful acting, directing, design, and writing.

James Whalen as Acosta and Yesenia Iglesias as Inez in ‘Daphne’s Dive.’ Photo by Christopher Mueller.

Acosta (James Whalen) and Inez (Yesenia Iglesias) are married. Inez is the sister of Daphne (Rayanne Gonzales), the owner and founder of the eponymous Daphne’s Dive bar. At one point in the play, Acosta, who is white-appearing, addresses his wife, Inez, in casual and affectionate conversation as “Negra.” The first time I heard it, I intentionally overlooked it. It wasn’t made much of in the staging. And it was embedded in what was clearly a respectful and passionate loving relationship. The second time, however, no one overlooked it. When Acosta addresses Inez as “Negra” the second time, their relationship has changed and his casual use of this epithet feels like an assumption of the rights and privileges that were allowed before the change. And this assumption seems uncomfortably familiar. This time when Acosta calls her “Negra,” Inez looks him in the eye, raises her index finger in that way only women of a certain culture and ethnicity can, and insists that he address her by her proper name.

This exchange, which takes place in front of and among a group of patrons of Daphne’s Dive who are especially close, is a small moment in the flow of the play. But it is emblematic of what each character in this play experiences and survives. And it encapsulates one theme of this production: Daphne’s Dive is a haven and a sanctuary for people who valiantly wrestle and live with the wounds acquired in pursuit of love and belonging, whether on the interpersonal level or on the societal level. This is a group of people who have committed to sit with and bear witness to each other’s daily joy, tears, suffering, and, especially, wounds: wounds from abuse that was accepted because they thought this was all they were ever going to get or they thought that this is what love looks like or they thought that they had no other choice or they thought that this is the love they deserved.

Because the bar is situated in the same apartment building that Daphne lives in, and because she spends the better part of every 24 hours there, it ends up serving as her default living room. What unfolds in this living room is the story of a group of folks, some of whom are related by blood or marriage and some of whom are not, but all of whom choose to be committed to each other’s well-being. Daphne (Rayanne Gonzales) moved to Philadelphia with her sister Inez and earned enough money to purchase the apartment building and opened the bar. Ruby (Jyline Carranza) is a frightened and vulnerable girl found hiding behind a dumpster. She is the child of one of Daphne’s tenants. Her parents are taken away when their apartment is raided by the police. Daphne ends up adopting her. The play is framed by the story of Ruby growing up. Over the course of 17 years, we watch as Ruby grows and the group and the city change.

Jyline Carranza as Ruby and Rayanne Gonzales as Daphne in ‘Daphne’s Dive.’ Photo by Christopher Mueller.

In addition to Daphne and Ruby, there is Acosta, Daphne’s brother-in-law, who is an entrepreneur with ambitions for city politics. There is Inez, sister to Daphne and Acosta’s wife. Inez’s response to the life that she and her sister experienced was to become a social worker. She brings the skills she acquired in her studies to facilitate the well-being of the group and her husband as he seeks to become a senator. There is Pablo (Jonathan Atkinson), a poor visual artist who makes his art from other people’s trash. There is Rey (Jefferson A. Russell), a warm-hearted biker whose goal is to die with no money left in his wallet. And finally, there is Jenn (Quynh-My Luu), a dancer/performance artist who specializes in staging demonstrations for any cause that will support everyday people. This is an ensemble play, and all hold up their part as members of this family. Their familial connections emanating from the stage are thick enough to cut with a knife.

Under Paige Hernandez’s direction, Daphne’s Dive focuses on the pride of culture and the depth of familial commitment among the people in this play. The knowledge of Latine culture is palpable and the universality of its concerns and points of view are taken for granted. The political and social aspects in the plot appear as acts of conscience that come out of the culture that shaped these people and their commitment to each other, rather than as abstract or academic political principles on their own. In this production, politics is personal and the personal is the place where whatever political commitment one expresses will spring from.

The design elements of this show are at the high level that one has come to expect from the best productions in the region. A few things I want to highlight:

Rayanne Gonzales as Daphne, Jonathan Atkinson as Pablo, Yesenia Iglesias as Inez, Jyline Carranza as Ruby, and Quynh-My Luu as Jenn n ‘Daphne’s Dive.’ Photo by Christopher Mueller.

The set, a bar designed by Megan Raham, felt like an altar and place of worship (with leanings toward Sansé Espiritismo [an African diasporic religion], complete with offerings of beads and spirits). And the “Throwback Thursday” events the bar sponsors, in which shots are “thrown back” and alternated with “throwback” stories of past experiences, feel like libations to the ancestors. What the set did not look like was a set that was trying to remind us of what a “real” bar felt like. Not all bars are welcoming places. But I felt embraced by Daphne’s Dive as soon as I entered the theater space.

The costumes for each of the characters effectively tell us who they are and make us want to hear what they’ll say even before they speak. That’s true for everyone. But Inez’s earrings, though. I think they change for every entrance. And each time they perfectly present her face while complementing her sleekly form-fitting dresses. Her clothes tell us that this is someone who dresses for the occasion, and someone for whom every moment of every day is an occasion. And Pablo’s fanciful shirts, his flamboyant yet stylish oversize glasses, and pants for formal occasions that rivaled Inez in their satisfying form-fittingness were fun to look at. Latin flavor, indeed.

I was delighted by the selection of music played prior to the show. It was in the background, but I was able to pick out Patti LaBelle singing “On My Own” and “New Attitude” and Teddy Pendergrass singing “(Looks like another) Love T.K.O.,” among others that clearly supported the theme of the show and reflected its intersectionality. Most of them were songs I remember from my 20s (or thereabouts). Music for aging baby boomers, certainly, but lots of fun.

Running Time: Approximately one hour 35 minutes, with no intermission.

Daphne’s Dive plays through March 20, 2022, at Signature’s Ark Theatre – 4200 Campbell Avenue in Arlington, VA. For tickets ($60–$90), call (703) 820-9771 or go online. Information about ticket discounts is available here.

The Daphne’s Dive program is available here.

COVID Safety: Signature Theatre requires all audiences (including children) to wear a mask and provide proof of vaccination or negative COVID test to attend all live public performances and events at indoor venues. Signature’s Safety Measures can be found here.

Closed captions will be available for every show via the GalaPro app. 

Daphne’s Dive by Quiara Alegría Hudes

Directed by Paige Hernandez
Scenic Design by Meghan Raham
Costume Design by Moyenda Kulemeka,
Lighting Design by John D. Alexander
Sound Design by Kenny Neal
Resident Intimacy Choreographer & Consultant: Chelsea Pace

Daphne: Rayanne Gonzales
Inez: Yesenia Iglesias
Acosta: James Whalen
Pablo: Jonathan Atkinson
Rey: Jefferson A. Russell
Jenn: Quynh-My Luu
Ruby: Jyline Carranza

Daphne/Inez: Kara-Tameika Watkins
Acosta/Rey/Pablo: Dylan Arredondo
Jenn: Elizabeth Ung
Ruby: Diedre Staples


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