Cafecito (Coffee and chat) are interviews with comadres and compadres meant to shine a light on what small or large companies; independent artists or ensembles are doing around the country. Café Onda is an evolving publication. Sit back, take a sip, and enjoy our monthly Cafecito. This series focuses on the playwrights from the Latinx Theatre Commons Carnaval of New Latina/o Work.
Maria Enriquez: The response for Swimming While Drowning was so positive at Carnaval. It’s an incredibly moving piece, and explores LGBT youth and homelessness with such thoughtfulness and honesty. What was your process for creating the piece?
Emilio Rodriguez: Swimming While Drowning was a sort of “crock-pot” process in that ideas had been cooking in my brain for almost four years. It had begun with researching the issues surrounding LGBT homeless shelters and LGBT youth of color. While in Detroit, I volunteered at an LGBT homeless shelter as well as an LGBT resource center. I also met a woman who stayed in several LGBT homeless shelters who allowed me to interview her about the experiences she had. She explained to me the reality that many teens feel they have to lie about their upbringing in order to secure a spot in the shelters, which are almost all underfunded and have very limited capacity.
The characters came to me one day as I was in rehearsal for another show: Angelo, named after my cousin and a tough guy named Milagros, after one of my students. From there everything fell into place around those two characters and it was just a matter of a ton of rewrites and development. I’m so grateful for the development opportunities that both WMU and LTC gave me to really figure everything out.
Spoken word gave the piece that feeling that it was a modern musical in which the poems took the place of songs.
Maria: From what I observed in rehearsal at Carnaval, there seemed to be a good deal of collaboration between you, the director, Alex Meda, and the production dramaturg, Isaac Gómez. What impact on the final reading did these collective conversations have?
Emilio: Alex and Isaac were both a tremendous help in the process, as was the entire cast. They all really helped me shape the piece as a whole and cut the parts that weren’t working which we subbed for rewrites that were much stronger. Isaac and Alex guided me toward a new ending which really solidifies what the piece is about and clarifies Angelo’s super objective. Isaac also helped me a lot with redundancy—I’m into circular arguments. Alex guided me with keeping beauty and humor in every scene, which as she noted is the best way to tackle such a sensitive issue. Many audience members noted the “beauty and humor in such tense situations”…that was definitely a sign that Alex was right on the money.
One of the most memorable cuts for me was actually a cast member’s suggestion. Scene Nine wasn’t working at all and everyone in the room had that awkward, “How do we tell him this is whack?” face and Gustavo just said to me “I really loved the poem at the beginning. It really painted the picture of the whole scene and it was very powerful.” Then I thought to myself…“Oh, I should just do the poem as the whole scene and nothing else.” Marvin, the actor who read the poem, really shone in the moment, which made it all work in my opinion. But the entire team was crucial to the shape of the play.
The audience feedback was very helpful in terms of telling me what worked and what could be extended. I made a few edits after Carnaval based on comments that were made. I also extended a few of Mila and Angelo’s scenes as it was a consistent comment from the audience that the scenes between “those two boys” were their favorites.
Maria: Spoken word is such an important aesthetic component of Swimming While Drowning. Why did you include this artistic medium in the play?
Emilio: I actually started out as a spoken word artist before I was a theatre major. Poetry has been a part of my life as long as I can remember. My mother was a preschool teacher who exposed me to Gary Soto as soon as I could read. My love of Hip-Hop started when I lived in a military base outside of Atlanta in elementary school and heard Lauryn Hill’s “Doo Wop (That Thing)” for the first time. When a friend introduced me to Def Poetry Jam in high school, it seemed like the perfect blend of Hip-Hop and poetry that I couldn’t get enough of.
After graduating, I realized how much I missed being around the spoken word scene every day and the line “You took the rhythm out of me” actually came about as my ode to the spoken word scene and the people who inspired me. It slowly morphed its way into the play and began the impetus for the inclusion of spoken word in the play. Once the poems were added, I felt that it really solidified my voice as a writer. I’ve always wanted to have a musical-esque quality to my work without becoming a lyricist. For me, spoken word gave the piece that feeling that it was a modern musical in which the poems took the place of songs. I am really excited about continuing to explore this device in future pieces.
Maria: Tell me about the journey of this play, and about your other work.
Emilio: Swimming While Drowning also received a staged reading at Western Michigan University’s Activate Midwest Festival about a month before Carnaval. It was so helpful because they also provided a week of development opportunities and interaction with a cast and director. It really helped me bring my best voice to Carnaval.
I have a few other plays I’ve written that are still in the very early draft stages and I’ve also had some festival readings of my one-act plays. Carnaval really empowered me to be a writer and focus on writing. It was the first time in my life that I felt like a playwright. I was still self-identifying as an actor when I applied, but after seeing the actors on stage bring my words to life, I definitely feel like a playwright.
I’m looking forward to the work that I create now after hearing feedback from audience members about what worked in the play. I have kind of been all over the place in my issues, which was great for exploration, but I’d like to try putting the blinders on and focusing on spoken word as well as the experiences of LGBT people of color since I had such positive responses toward both of those elements at Carnaval.
Maria: You’re an emerging writer that is generating some buzz. What projects do you have on the horizon?
Emilio: I am currently working on a piece in which the first act is loosely based on how my parents met in San Francisco and the second act is very loosely based on some of the experiences my brother and I have had as third generation Latinos. I was fortunate to be able to get the Djerassi writers residency, which coincidently takes place in San Francisco this year so I’m excited to finish that play by exploring San Francisco.
I also am working on a play about what it means to be a third generation Latino and the bi-culturalism we experience in which people who are not even Latino tell you that you should be listening to Reggaeton instead of Hip-Hop, as if my bloodline is somehow defined by my taste in music or the movies I watch. The recent controversy surrounding Gina Rodriguez inspired me to explore the issue of bi-culturalism and third generation Latinos further.
Another play I’m working on deals specifically with how we tear each other down for not being “Latino enough” in regards to skin color, image, understanding of culture, language, religion, etc. It always baffles me that people who understand what it’s like to be at the bottom of the society’s totem pole in terms of power, status, and acceptance could find satisfaction in tearing down someone else. Either way, we’re still oppressed as a culture in general, so why would anyone be opposed to the success of a Latino? Who cares if they have different experiences from you?
A YouTube personality was talking the other day about how white people as a race have empowered themselves by always empowering one another. When Caitlin Jenner emerged, she was embraced by a majority of white audiences. But Gwen Araujo, a Latina woman who was trans, has, in many people’s opinions, been largely ignored. There was also the huge controversy when Jennifer Lopez, a Puerto Rican woman, played legendary Tejano singer Selena in the biopic of the same name (as a Mexican Puerto Rican mix, I loved this moment). The Gina Rodriguez incident was the straw that broke the camels back for me. It really gave me a focus to figure out how to write roles in which Latinos could showcase the bi-culturalism that some of us experience and be celebrated in a way that doesn’t feel didactic for audiences.
Perhaps the only silver lining in the idiotic comments of Donald Trump is that more Latinos are seeing that we are all united and have to stick together to combat the ignorance of some of society and some people in power!
Another play I’m working on deals specifically with how we tear each other down for not being “Latino enough” in regards to skin color, image, understanding of culture, language, religion, etc.
Maria: Where does your love of theatre come from? Why playwriting?
Emilio: I didn’t discover theatre until college. I was taking an education class since both of my parents are teachers and as the only Latino in the class, I had to play the role of some Latino politician arguing for bilingual education in our class’ mock debate. After the “performance,” my professor asked me if I’d join her husband’s class which was a program that had high school Latino students translating Shakespearean scenes into modern English and performing them for their school.
That program solidified my decision to study theatre. During that program, we took the students to see Culture Clash’s Culture Clash in AmeriCA and shortly after I saw Octavio Solis’ Lydia. I also have to shout out Brian Quijada for his fusion of spoken word, rap, and social issues in his play Where Did We Sit. He also made me feel less alone as a Latino who loves Hip-Hop and Michael Jackson (his obsession with Michael Jackson feels parallel to my love of Babyface songs). I am so glad I was exposed to theatre later in life because I don’t know if it would have had the same impact on me had it not been tied to a larger purpose or had I not been able to see people who looked like my family members on stage.
Side note: My parents stand by the claim that my love for theatre/performance began with me doing one-person adaptations of the Wizard of Oz in our living room at the age of three for anyone that would watch. I played all of the characters but the Wicked Witch was my favorite and I apparently often told strangers on the street that I’d get them and their little dog too.
Playwriting was an accidental journey that in hindsight seems obvious. After I graduated, I went on my first “big boy” audition for a company in Los Angeles who I will not name (no tea, no shade). I emailed my headshot and resume as directed, but never heard back. Naïvely, I showed up to the audition and told the stage manager that I had not received an audition slot. She smiled and said, “Aww sweetheart, you’re not from LA are you? (Beat) It means we don’t need to see your monologue.” I was stunned that someone could tell if they wanted me solely based off my headshot. I ended up seeing John Leguizamo that same year and decided I was going to write roles for myself so that I’d never again be told that I didn’t look the part. After seeing Swimming While Drowning done so beautifully by an all Latino cast at Carnaval, I decided that I wanted to focus specifically on writing. For me, playwriting feels like the perfect blend of theatre, poetry, and creating art with a purpose.