Name: Carl(os) Roa
Hometown: Miami, FL
Current Town: Bogotá, Colombia and Philadelphia, PA
Affiliations: The Foundry at PlayPenn, Headlong Performance Institute, HowlRound Theatre Commons, Philadelphia Young Playwrights, The Wilma Theater, Balistikal
Q: How do you self-identify?
A: This question is becoming hard to answer! My bio typically says, “juicy Colombian bear, proud Miami transplant.” But my time here in Colombia has changed a lot about how I identify, and I think I align myself more with the concept of Latinx identity here in the United States. I also think of “Latinidad” and “Latino culture” as constructs that are designed to erase the marginalized within the marginalized, specifically: queer, Afro-Latinx, and indigenous communities. With this in mind, some days I identify more as mixed race. Growing up in a Haitian-Colombian household, I feel like I have to embrace all the complexity of who I am in whatever way I can communicate.
Q: Tell me about Tribe of the Brightest Sun.
A: Tribe of the Brightest Sun is a piece a trash. It is also celebration of the unseen, as well as a collection of vignettes depicting the existences of Iris, Judy, and Sunshine. They are members of a clan who are perfectly fine with being invisible, and they’ve been at it for as long as they could remember. Within their acropolis of garbage, the three vagabonds grapple with isolation, the feeling of rock-bottom, fake acid tabs, finding beauty within filth and most importantly: the sun. Combining elements of both theatre and dance, this play reminds us of who lives underneath our bridges, or in our neighborhoods when we’re not watching.
I’m excited to begin self-producing this piece in September, and to experiment with a new way of producing work. The idea of this play began at a writing desk, but something didn’t feel quite right about producing a play that depicts homelessness without building relationships with homeless communities in Philadelphia. Far too often, a theatre company’s idea of community engagement ends with a panel discussion where organizers who had no involvement with the process to “talk about the issues.” I’m interested in creating a process where people that are affected by homelessness are not just consultants, but creative drivers who have a big collaborative voice on the project. It’s uncharted territory for me, but I’m excited by the opportunity to grow, make mistakes, and be transformed by this process.
Q: What else are you working on now?
A: I am currently developing a bilingual horror play and oh my god it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever written. The play depicts a journey between two teenagers named Fátima and Guillermo, both of whom feel like outsiders in their respective countries. Fátima is fleeing Honduras in the midst of political violence, and Guillermo is moving to Colombia with his estranged father. They both discover pieces of a sentient map that is guiding them to meet each other halfway, unaware of the spiritual hell they’re about to experience. It’s ultimately a buddy movie wedged into a horror play, and their relationship is the anchor that keeps the piece together. They’re united by a love of anime, and the distinct feeling of not fitting into a culture.
In order to write the play, I find myself having to dig deep into a lot personal trauma. The idea came from a lot of anxieties I was facing surrounding Latin culture, and the realization that I actually fear my own culture. It’s a messy, challenging play to write, especially as someone who is still learning to write in Spanish. I realized that I couldn’t write parts of this play without spending time here in Bogotá and remembering why I had complicated feelings about this idea of being Latin, and a lot of the disgust and revulsion I feel towards the darker sides of Latin culture. Writing horror for the stage is also a unique challenge on its own, and I’ve been watching a lot of horror movies in order to capture the essence of the genre.
Q: What have been the defining moments of your journey as a playwright?
A: Back when I was in college, I once wrote a short play and my playwriting professor hated the ending. He insisted that I change it to something neater. So I ended up changing it because he “had more experience” than me and he “knew what he was talking about.” But the play didn’t feel the same afterwards, and I felt very strange writing the new ending. At the talkback, I explained the original ending to my audience, and when they were more audibly excited about it, I learned that there was no one that understood my work better than me. From then on, I began to trust my instincts, and to recognize when other artists’ perspectives on my work is less useful than my own. Just because they can’t see it doesn’t mean that it’s not real.
Later, I agreed to be part of a project that I wasn’t too excited about, but I stayed onboard because it was a writing credit that would look great on my resume. The piece was a success for everyone involved: the actors had a blast, the audience loved it, the producers were surprised by the quality of the piece…but I hated writing it. It didn’t match my aesthetic at all. It didn’t represent who I was as an artist. I explained this to another (admittedly more experienced) artist, and the exchange went something like this:
“Why did you do it?”
“Because it looked great on my resume, and I thought it was going to help me get a lot of opportunities.”
“But are you proud of it?”
“Then don’t ever do something like that again.”
Since then, I don’t sign onto projects unless I have complete confidence that I’m not only going enjoy the process, but also be willing to brag about it to other people.
Q: Who have been your playwriting mentors and heroes?
A: It feels strange to say this, but the most influential mentors weren’t playwrights. First, I have to talk about some Philly locals who lifted me up. Deen Rawlins-Harris always challenged me to think beyond art for art’s sake, and to consider integrating activism and community organizing into my work. Mariadela Belle Alvarez is a dance artist whose spirit and love for being an artist inspired me to chin up and stop being so grumpy about the artist’s life. Cat Ramirez is so precise in everything they do as a director that it makes me want to be just as meticulous in my own writing. Adrienne Mackey taught me about this strange magic called “devised theatre”, and that not having all the answers is actually a great place to be. Amy Smith and David Brick were two artists that I met at an amazing program called the Headlong Performance Institute, and they encouraged me to explore mediums beyond theatre. José Aviles is a champion for Latinx artists in Philly, and he also coached me through the first project that I ever produced with a level of patience that I hope to have one day.
As far as playwriting heroes go, I’m in love with Federico García Lorca and the symbolist logic in his plays. Caryl Churchill is a huge inspiration as well, and Top Girls and The Skriker are some of the most structurally satisfying plays I’ve ever read. George C. Wolfe is a genius for writing The Colored Museum, and I still watch it again and again on YouTube. Tennessee Williams was the first playwright whose work I fell in love with. I read Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman when I was 16, and had two epiphanies: one, that I wanted to be a playwright; and two, that I want to make audiences feel uncomfortable as fuck.
Q: What advice do you have for Latinx playwrights at the beginning of their career?
A: Nobody is coming to save you. I learned the hard way that I can’t make other people care about my plays, and that the only way I can do that is by taking matters into my own hands and producing my own work. Learn to produce your own work, try not to do it all by yourself or else you’ll go insane, and if there’s producing labor that you absolutely hate (fundraising, writing press releases, etc.) then find someone else to do it. If you’re lucky, you’ll get so used to it that you can’t work any other way, which is perfect, because most arts institutions are not your friend.
Also, please try to travel if you can. But don’t travel to be a tourist. Travel for the opportunity to learn about where you come from. Travel so you can stop stealing other people’s gigs and give a new artist in your community an opportunity to shine. Travel so you can learn a new language and connect with communities you weren’t able to before. Travel so you can examine your own privilege and reflect on how fortunate you are to even be able to travel. Travel so you can learn ideas from other cultures and bring them back to your imperialist home country so that you can transform other people’s colonial mindsets. All of these things will make you not just a better writer, but a better artist.
Q: What else should we know about you?
A: I have a website! Check out carlparenthesisos.com if you wanna learn more about me and my work.
***For more on Carl(os) Roa, see:
- “Why Is There a Parenthesis in My Name?” – Carl(os) Roa
- “How to Model a Healthier Professional Culture That Benefits Marginalized Artists and Administrators” – Carl(os) Roa (HowlRound)
- Review of Carl(os) Roa’s Andean Mountains (Montañas Andinas)