Emilio Rodriguez is this year’s guest of honor at the annual Theatre Kalamazoo New Play Festival, February 3rd and 4th at the Judy K. Jolliffe Theatre (formerly known as the Epic Center Theatre). He’s known for telling lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender stories - especially from the perspective of people of color.
Rodiguez lives in Detroit but grew up in southern California. He says at the time there weren’t a lot of resources for LGBT youth:
“So it’s something I always wanted to write about and to open the door for conversation - particularly within the Latino community. Because I feel there’s been recently a lot of LGBT characters on television - which I think is awesome - but if there’s not enough visibility of Latino LGBT youth or even just people of color LGBT youth, then some people feel like they still can’t identify or they don’t have a representation.”
The Theatre Kalamazoo New Play Festival does script-in-hand readings of new plays and encourages audience feedback. This is Rodriguez’s first time at this festival, but not his first time in Kalamazoo.
He did a staged reading of his play Spin - now called Swimming While Drowning - at Western Michigan University’s Activate: Midwest New Play Festival. The play is about LGBT characters that have to hide their sexuality to stay at a homeless shelter:
“It’s interesting how much it’s evolved because it started off with four characters in the original draft. And based off audience feedback of how much they identified with the two teenage boys, Swimming While Drowning now has just become the story from the perspective of just the two teenage boys and all of the other characters have been left out and that’s something that came from the readings.”
Rodriguez says the finished play Swimming While Drowning has opened up a lot of opportunities for him. Rodriguez has done work for a theatre in Portland, Oregon and has also done two residences for different theatre groups in Michigan.
He says he feels it’s essential to have these staged readings before putting on a full-scale production.
“It’s so important to have audience turnout because they become our collaborators, they become our editors in a sense and really guide us towards a process of creating the final product,” he says.
Few people have had the experience of being a homeless, LGBT person of color, but Rodriguez says that’s the magic of theatre - being able to tell those experiences in a way that strikes a chord with everyone.
“It goes back to advice that I had gotten from a writer early on, Charlayne Woodard, who says the more personal you make it the more universal it becomes. And I think that’s very encouraging for Latino writers or writers of color, LGBTQ writers, or even female writers women writers - of just this idea of you don’t have to try and tell the stories like other people have told them. You have to tell the stories with what resonates with you and make it resonate with you so honestly that then an audience feels like they get a new experience, but they also get a universal experience.”
Rodriguez got involved in theatre as a spoken word artist and a poet, but he says he didn’t use that skill in his plays until Swimming While Drowning. He says he needed something to connect the different parts of the play:
“I just started writing a poem from the perspective of the character to just see if that was an exercise to help me figure that out. And through that I realized the character needed poetry as sort of his tangible want and this objective that he was going to go on. And it was interesting because I had written a couple drafts of plays before that never got finished and once I added that poetry element, I had a first draft.”
Rodriguez doesn’t stop at poetry, he uses other spoken word forms too - like rap:
“My mom was a preschool teacher and one of the things she always notes is that rhythm and song and rhyme and chant are all things that…are all tools that enable preschoolers to access information better. And I think in the same way for teenagers or for adults, I think rap and hip hop is a way to give access to information. That you can be political but you can put it in music so that it’s accessible to young people.”
In addition to writing plays, Rodriguez also helps to bring theatre to public schools. Though southwest Detroit has a large Latino population, he says their stories are not often told in Detroit theatres.
Rodriguez says reaching out to schools is a way to involve those communities - to let Latino kids know that they can try out for plays too:
“I think the next level becomes theatre companies producing the works of Latino playwrights and casting Latino actors and going into the communities, going into the neighborhoods and finding these actors who might not show up for the general auditions because they don’t know that there’s an opportunity for them to be cast.”
Rodriguez says lately he’s been inspired to write about issues that divide the Latino community. Last year Gina Rodriguez, star of the TV show Jane the Virgin, was attacked for incorrect grammar on an Instagram post she wrote in Spanish.
“Everyone criticized her as if that was a factor in her Latina identity," he says. "And I think that’s something that we need to have more conversations about within the Latino community - of what is Latino enough and why do we push out our own people or create arbitrary rules for our own communities that actually isolate us.”
Emilio Rodriguez says he’s looking forward to the New Play Festival next week. He’ll be reading from his draft called Blood Moon Baby - which he says is only half done. Rodriguez says he hopes suggestions from the audience will help him to finish it.
The play is loosely based off of a true story about three pregnant sea lions in a Nebraska zoo.
“One of the pregnant sea lions started taking care of another sea lion’s baby and they were deciding what to do because it became very aggressive and assertive,” says Rodriguez.
So Rodriguez says the trainers decided to move the sea lion to a different tank.
“When they tranquilized her she ended up dying. And when they did a necropsy - I guess it’s like an autopsy for animals - they found out that on Friday her baby had died inside of her, and on Saturday is when she had started taking care of another sea lion’s baby,” he says.
Rodriguez says he was fascinated by this. Did the sea lion know her pup had died? Did she assume the other sea lion’s pup was her own?
“With animals, we can’t ask them what their intentions are and so it creates an ambiguity that I think is really interesting for theatre," says Rodriguez.
You can see a reading of Blood Moon Baby by guest playwright Emilio Rodriguez at the Theatre Kalamazoo New Play Festival. The festival takes place Friday and Saturday of next week.