Jose Zambrano courted Julie Piñero so playfully that he Photoshopped silly made-up pictures of them together as a couple – outside Times Square without pants, for example.
This caused something of a dilemma when his family traveled from Venezuela and elsewhere to hold vigil around his hospital bed, where he lay in a coma.
“I’m just a stranger that nobody knows who’s crying a lot; how am I supposed to convince the people who have known him the longest that I am important to him?“ she says in her one-woman show on Zoom, “Delejos (from afar),” The only photographs of the couple together were his fabrications.
The two-hour performance, raw and live and free, will be presented again Saturday and Thursday evenings through March 20.
As it turns out, Julie didn’t need proof; the family took her in as one of their own, his father calling her “mija,” my daughter, and his mother “has me saved into her phone as Angel Julie.”
As an audience member, you are likely to feel drawn into the family as well, especially since, through Julie, a stand-up comic and musician, we get to know Jose Zambrano, a beautiful young immigrant who was granted asylum because of the violence in Venezuela, only to succumb to it in the streets of Williamsburg.
Near the beginning of the show, Julie talks to the comatose Jose, reminding him who he is “if this whole thing causes you to lose your memory …Your VR video game design business is thriving after only two years, you’re also a university professor and you live in a two-story house in Brooklyn with four of your best friends…. “
“A relevant piece of information: You’re in a medically-induced coma. Don’t freak out but two exact hours after you left me on Saturday night you were attacked from behind by a stranger on the street. The story goes that he asked you for a cigarette and you told him you didn’t have one and he got upset, which I don’t understand either, because you love strangers. I’ve seen you befriend bouncers and hug more than one homeless man…”
He was assaulted in November, 2019, and died of his injuries four days later, at the age of 26. Julie doesn’t tell us these details, but newspaper headlines did
We hear his actual voice, we see some of his drawings, but it’s through their relationship that we learn most deeply about his quirky wit and adventurous spirit.
He told Julie he thought it would cool if they were in a band together, Julie and Jose’s Fever Dream, even though he didn’t play a musical instrument. He decided to learn the drums. We see his orange-colored drum set behind Julie as she sits in a brick-walled room, holding a guitar and telling her story. One of their songs together, entitled “Chicken Fettucine,” closes the show.
Julie also tells her own story. We learn how she grew up with romantic notions – “when I was a kid I used to think that when you kissed someone in that shared moment where your lips touched you could watch their memories” – in a Puerto Rican household transplanted to Silver Spring, Maryland, that listened to “songs where love comes from pain and I don’t mean before or after it but love literally grows out of pain.”
As an adult, she dates self-identified villains and those who are “emotionally unavailable.” She said that to one of them; “he likes the ring of it so much he makes it his Twitter bio and builds it into a fairly successful personal brand.” After each breakup, she listened to sad French music, “because I don’t know what the fuck they’re saying, I just assume they’re on my side.”
She meets Jose Zambrano at a bar called Easy Lover, where she is doing a comedy show that she says bombed, “but he repeats back to me word for word every joke that he likes, then he invites me to join him at a gospel concert in the back of a bar.”
Not everything in “Delejos (from afar)” worked for me as a piece of theater. To give us the experience of Virtual Reality which was Zambrano’s life work, she tells us “all you have to do is close your eyes….you can turn your head to look all around you in every direction and you’ll see that you’re completely immersed in a different world.” This may be a funny or intriguing idea in theory, but the several closed-eye “VR” interludes with her voiceover were among the reasons why the show felt overlong to me.
It is hard, though, to keep a critical distance from something that can feel like a memorial service, full of reminiscence and grief. Yes, it’s scripted and there’s music and multimedia and jokes. But there’s an intimate sharing here about a brilliant man, a promising love and a tragic loss that is likely to make you feel protective, when you’re not busy crying.