Name: Desi Moreno-Penson
Hometown: New York City
Current Town: The luminously magical, challenging, and dangerously provocative borough of The Boogie-Down Bronx!
Affiliations: BFA in Theater and Acting from The Greer Garson Theater Center at the College of Santa Fe, NM. Post-graduate program (scholarship), British American Drama Academy (BADA), London, UK. MFA in Dramaturgy and Theater Criticism from Brooklyn College, NY (2004), Member: SAG-AFTRA, The Dramatists Guild of America, Going To The River (GTTR) Writers Unit @the Lark Play Development Center.
Q: How do you self-identify?
A: As a second-generation Nuyorican theater artist. Or quite simply, a Latina playwright. That pretty much sums it up nicely for me. But I also identify with a quote written on my birthday, November 22nd, by the great writer, Virginia Woolf, “I am fundamentally, I think, an outsider. I do my best work and feel most braced with my back to the wall. It’s an odd feeling, though, writing against the current: different entirely to disregard the current. Yet of course I shall.” –Virginia Woolf’s Diary, November 22, 1938. Get it, girl.
Q: Tell me about Ominous Men.
A: Ominous Men is the third installment of a cycle of plays I’ve been writing/developing called Nuyorican Gothic: stylized, dark and fantastical plays set in The Bronx, featuring heightened, poetic language, gothic themes, and “Nuyorican” characters (Puerto Ricans born and raised in New York City).
The first play of the cycle, Devil Land, an adult fairytale of child abduction, post-colonial angst, and Taino mysticism set in the boiler room of a Bronx apartment building, was a semifinalist for the 2007 Princess Grace Award for emerging artists, originally produced as a professional workshop in New York City at Urban Stages, and part of the 2007 SPF-Summer Play Festival, directed by Jose Zayas. In 2014, the play received its Midwest premiere at Urban Theater Company in Chicago, and in the same year, was produced as a student showcase presented by the graduate acting program at the University of Georgia. The second play, Comida de Puta (F%&king Lousy Food), a modern adaptation of Euripides’ Hippolytus, tells a tale of unrequited lust, vengeful Orisha gods, gentrification, and urban witchery set in a rundown Bronx bodega. The play was a finalist at the 2014 Eugene O’Neill National Playwrights Conference; received Honorable Mention on The Kilroys List; was a winner for the 2013 MultiStages New Works Contest; and received its world premiere production at the West End Theater in New York City in 2015, produced by MultiStages Theater Company and directed by Lorca Peress. A staged reading of the first draft of Ominous Men was held last October at A.R.T/New York, directed by Lorca Peress and featuring a cast of exceptionally talented actors (Esteban Carmona, Gus Scharr, Sandor Juan, Ron Cohen, and Russell Jordan).
Borrowing from old gothic tropes of desperate men trying to outwit the devil by playing a game of chance, Ominous Men is told with a decidedly multicultural and Nuyorican bent: On the night of July 13, 1977, three men meet in the basement of the derelict Concourse Plaza in The Bronx for a night of beer drinking, male camaraderie, and a game of Dominos. The sudden appearance of an enigmatic, mysterious stranger, the sounds of falling pebbles on the steps, ghostly sobs heard from a woman long dead, and the angry apparition of a Jewish Holocaust survivor are among the highlights of their supernatural night of the soul. And then, of course, there’s the blackout (spoiler alert!).
I didn’t write the play as an adaptation, although it’s similar in tone to The Seafarer by Conor McPherson, which happens to be one of my favorite plays! However, my inspiration for Ominous Men did not come solely from this work; truth is, I like scary stories. If you can say that one’s “inner artist” is a child (according to Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way), then as a playwright, I view all weird and creepy stories with an inspired, child-like zeal, especially the ones that contain more than a few, revealing truths of the dark nature of human beings. Since grad school, I have been a student of the Theatre of the Grand Guignol, and gothic literature (Poe, Lovecraft). I know that a gothic/horror play is like nothing else in the theater. It is a genre devoted entirely to the visualization, analysis and dissection of the most elemental human emotions, the psychology of fear, terror, eroticism, and horror. The interaction of conscience, and the primal human need to influence the real and the imaginary though a strongly suggestive, atmospheric environment, holds enough theatrical power to capture its audience.
I want to see myself as a storyteller in the old-fashioned mode, the kind that can tell imaginative, scary bedtime stories. I want to create work that excites and inspires the ingenuity of collaborative designers, particularly in lighting, sound, and production. I write theater that is weird, visceral, humorous, and unpretentious. I borrow freely from urban legends, myths, fairy tales, classical theater, and popular culture. I’m not interested in creating “new worlds,” but enjoy searching for magic in this one. Each one of my plays tends to feature an inanimate object that’s been imbued with some sort of dark enchantment. From the sugar cubes and wooden gun in Beige, to the strange noises and smells that emanate from the kitchen sink in Lazarus Disposed, to the boiler that could be sheltering a monster in Devil Land, I continue to write weird stories because, for me, the tenets of magical realism are just not “magical” enough within the context of a more traditional Latin@ play. Since all peoples and cultures have a sense of magic and the preternatural about them, it’s been my wish to momentarily achieve the illusion of some suspension of the pedestrian limitations of time, space, and natural law. Only in the theater, within the intimate, shared experience of a group of people in one room, can the Aristotelian purges of fear and pity truly manifest its power. I believe it’s what the Greeks and Shakespeare had in mind all along.
I was thrilled (as we all were!) when the Ominous Men reading received an enthusiastic response. But it was a little weird, too, since I haven’t always had luck with staged readings. No, let me rephrase that. It’s not the readings that are the problem. Truth is, I like readings, but I do have a strong dislike of talkbacks! This is something I’ve been thinking about for a while now, and I’d like to discuss it a bit. I usually avoid talkbacks since I’ve experienced some pretty negative stuff. Some people conveniently forget their manners when it comes time to ask questions of a playwright once they’ve seen a reading of one of their plays. When the playwright happens to be a woman of color, common courtesy can sometimes be a rare commodity. Over the years, I have felt a great deal of “Who do you think you are?” vibes in lots of talkback situations. Not all of them, but more than a few. And interestingly enough, not necessarily just from White folks, but African-American and Latin@, too. I think the whole idea of a “talkback” is important (I trained as a dramaturge in grad school; I’d feel like a traitor if I didn’t recognize this!), but I think the concept of talkbacks is in some serious need of revision. They should only function as a thoughtful, exploratory, and constructive discussion of the play. It’s not an opportunity for someone in the audience to “attack” the playwright, or to make the playwright feel ashamed of their writing, or for the playwright to be put in a position where they now have to aggressively defend their work. If talkbacks are indeed a developmental tool for new play development, then how does it serve the playwright if members of the audience are allowed to behave in this way? What is the primary function of the moderator—to basically just sit there and allow this to happen? How does it serve the work? Isn’t it tough enough just being a playwright, let alone a woman playwright of color? Again, this is something I’ve been thinking about.
Now, when people come to see one of my play readings, if I have the authority to do so, instead of a talkback, I’ll usually have a brief wine and cheese reception afterwards. That way I feel I can talk to people one-on-one; we can meet on more “equal” footing, as opposed to my standing up on stage and becoming a human target for somebody’s bullshit. But I don’t know. The reading this past October, the singular work of my director and actors, and the reactions to the play afterwards, were pretty awesome! I appreciate how hard it is to describe here, because it’s just one of those things where you needed to be there, you know? It also makes it hard to write about, because I have never experienced anything like this in a reading before. It felt very special to me. For an artist, experiencing something—anything—that is special and shows that the audience connected with one’s work is always a good thing. It keeps you going. Based on the success of the Ominous Men reading, I’m now doing the usual “playwriting” thing; submitting the play and getting it sent out to as many theater companies as I can, in the hopes of getting it produced, preferably in New York. Since my last play produced in the city was in 2015, I am, of course, hot on the trail of my next production. Although I would certainly never be adverse to a regional premiere!
Also, this past summer, a ten-minute play, Dead Wives Dance the Mambo, was selected for the Going to the River Festival, a three-day weekend of staged readings at Ensemble Studio Theater, produced by GTTR artistic director Elizabeth Van Dyke. Going to the River is a wonderfully unique program that supports the works of women writers of color at all levels of their professional careers. Previously the GTTR enjoyed two full-scale, month-long festivals also at EST. The first time was in 2009, when my short play, Spirit Sex: A Paranormal Romance was selected, then the second time was in 2011 when Comida de Puta (F%&king Lousy Food) was first presented in its original incarnation: as a ten-minute play directed by Jose Zayas. But the three-day readings festival this past summer had something new: a post-readings talkback. Ugh. So, I braced myself for the onslaught. Thankfully, it was a good experience! Now, I don’t know if this was because there was a group of us writers up there (as opposed to one vulnerable and helpless little writer!), but dramaturge Arminda Thomas did a beautifully subtle job moderating the talkback, while the questions from the audience were smart, sensitive, and to the point. In other words, no one behaved like a dick. So, I guess there’s hope!
Q: What else are you working on?
A: This past month has been amazing. I returned to teaching, leading a performance-based dramaturgical class for the Greek Myths and Music Theater Workshop sponsored by the Yip Harburg Foundation at Empire State College. The workshop was held at the Theater for the New City in the East Village, and gave me the chance to not only get back to teaching (which is important to me), but to discuss the ways I adapted Hippolytus to the urban Boogie-Down Bronx of Comida de Puta (F%&king Lousy Food). Music and multimedia (live drumming and pre-filmed videos), the portrayal of African/Latin@ cosmology (Yoruba), and its elements of Santeria culture were used in Comida de Puta to stress the importance and impact on the Latin@ community as a counterpoint to Greek Mythology.
I was invited to participate as a playwright/performer in The Future Is Female Festival hosted by MultiStages Theater Company. MultiStages, along with other theaters, playwrights, poets, composers, dancers, and actors throughout the US and Canada were united during Women’s History Month to present TFIF, a national series of staged readings and productions of short plays written by women of all backgrounds on the subject, “The Future Is Female,” and what that idea means to them. TFIF was created by playwright Mya Kagan. I was proud to take part in such an exciting event, and it was great collaborating with fellow Latin@ playwright Noemi de la Puente on a new, ten-minute piece, Not Like Us. But for me, something that happened on the second night of the festival was particularly meaningful.
During the course of the evening, a small group of us: Raquel Almazan, Daniela Thome, Andrea Abello, and Angelica Pinn Perez stood outside the Shop Theater at Cap21 Studios, all of us conversing in hushed, respectful tones so as not to disturb the audience. (The show was still going on.) I knew of Raquel and Daniela, but I’d never had the chance to meet them. Normally I feel a sense of acute anxiety when it comes to meeting new people. I do my best to cover it up; most folks that know me personally, know that I’ve got plenty of bluster! But the unease around new people still remains. Fortunately, I needn’t have worried; the warmth and courtesy they showed towards me worked like a balm. Having the opportunity to meet and speak with them, and talented Latin@ actors such as Angelica and Andrea, gave me a sense of solidarity that had been missing from my professional life for a while. At one point, I even jokingly suggested that we all should come together in a tight huddle. They were very cool with the idea, and honestly, it was pretty incredible. It was a real moment, not a fake, superficial one. And it was nice, if only for a second, to not feel like such an outsider always looking in. I felt like a part of something in this moment; part of a community of strong, powerful, smart, and beautiful Latinas, artists and creators. Unfortunately, it didn’t last long. We were indignantly squawked at by a jerk trying to get past us (of course!), but for those very few couple of beats that it lasted, it was something beautiful.
In May, my play, Beige will be part of the 2017 MultiStages New Script Development Series, sponsored by MultiStages Theater Company, and consisting of a week of development with director, dramaturge, and actors, all culminating in a staged reading of the new draft for an invited audience – but no talkback! Actually, at this point, I’m not entirely sure—eek! This past summer, Beige won the 2016 National Latino Playwriting Award, and this was a genuinely thrilling moment for me as a Nuyorican playwright. I will always be grateful to Elaine Romero and Katherine Monberg of the Arizona Theater Company for their kind support of my writing. Since then, I have actively been seeking the chance to get further development on the play. Beige is a surreal tale of self-identity and the sometimes-schizophrenic effects of post-colonialism. The play is set in 2001, very soon after the tragedy of 9/11, and tells the story of Soledad Iglesias, a young Nuyorican journalist who finds herself caught between the reality of her Jewish fiancé and the ideals of the notorious Puerto Rican Nationalist, Lolita Lebron. Existing at the crossroads of history, reality, and cultural imagination, Beige is a cautionary tale of race, Puerto Rican politics, and love.
I’m fascinated by the effects of post-colonialism on Latin@ culture. I began to develop my ideas for Nuyorican Gothic based, in part, on this very concept. I see Devil Land as a dark allegory of post-colonial angst. There are many people in the country that still believe Puerto Ricans are not actually American citizens, but immigrants. And with the ongoing controversy continuing to dog the immigration issue in this country, colonialism that is perpetrated upon any cultural group will most likely create deep psychological scars. At the risk of sounding facetious, I’m captivated by the dramatic potential of this. It’s a subject worthy of continued discourse and examination. I think the concept of a freedom fighter being viewed as a terrorist and vice versa, is just as compelling now as was in 2001. I began to formulate ideas for the play a good four or five years after 9/11. The notion of cultural identity, the intrinsic value of self-worth, it’s parallel link to mental, emotional disorders, and the desire to immerse oneself in the dominant culture—thereby eradicating one’s own cultural heritage in the process—continues to dominate my thoughts with regards to Beige. In addition, as Puerto Rico remains in an economic, social crisis, and the insidious racial backlash continues to divide our country, I see the play as incredibly relevant. Beige was a finalist for the 2016 Eugene O’Neill National Playwrights Conference, a semifinalist for the 2016 Princess Grace Award, and a semifinalist for the 2017 Blue Ink Playwriting Award, sponsored by the American Blues Theater in Chicago. However, I’d be completely remiss if I did not take a moment here to thank Trevor Boffone for including Beige on 50PP’s Top 8 Best Unproduced Latin@ Plays for 2017—thank you so much Trevor!
Q: What have been the defining moments of your journey as a playwright?
A: I’ve experienced some lovely defining moments as a playwright, but to list and talk about all of them feels overwhelming. However, I will endeavor to mention a few things from my first ten years of writing (more or less). I think I should probably clarify something; I did not start out as a playwright. I began as an actor, and did all the usual “actor” things (pounded pavements, endless auditions, post-graduate programs in London studying Shakespeare and Chekov, showcases and touring gigs, crappy temp jobs, acting classes, headshots, freelancing agents, etc.) for about 13 years. As a young woman, I had the opportunity to work with Spike Lee in the film “Girl 6,” I filmed a scene with Hugh Grant in the movie, “Extreme Measures,” did some touring, both national and international, and some episodic TV. At one time, I even worked as an assistant casting director for “Cosby!” on CBS. (Yes, I did meet Bill Cosby. I was instructed to call him “Dr. Cosby” at all times, and we were never left alone together—we were always surrounded by other people. Not that it matters, since it doesn’t mean I would have necessarily been his type—what is his “type,” anyway? Unconscious, maybe.)
For most of the mid-to-late 90s, I was asked by casting directors to do a “Rosie Perez” accent in many an audition. I was told I wasn’t “hot” enough to be Latina, spoke a little too upscale to be Latina, and at times, I was even too light-skinned to be Latina (whatever). Then the following week, I’d be at another audition where I was told the complete opposite, and I still wouldn’t book the gig! It was rare to walk into any casting call where I wasn’t immediately met with pre-conceived, racist ideas about what it means to be Latina. I resented the fact that my appearance was consistently used against me. For actresses, much more so than actors, physical appearance is identity.
This becomes particularly fraught for women of color. Latinas are either lascivious, over-sexed fuck-puppets or sexless abuelitas, with ancestral wisdom and desiccated coochies. We are never anything in the middle; there’s no meeting halfway. It wasn’t until I was in my thirties that I went back to school (Brooklyn College) to earn my MFA in Dramaturgy and Theater Criticism, and it was in the early aughts that I became a playwright. I knew I was coming late to playwriting, but I quickly discovered I had a passion for it that equaled how I felt about acting. My desire as an actor had been to present work that was honest and raw; as a playwright, my goals remain the same. My writing process has never been what I would call strict or disciplined, it fluctuates constantly—it’s ever-changing, unpredictable, frustrating, at times deeply neurotic, exciting, and will usually involve fighting my ego tooth-and-nail so I can tell a relatable, human story.
I parodied many of my previous acting experiences in a performance monologue, “A Latina Prepares,” which premiered at the 2004 Downtown Urban Theater Festival (DUTF) at Henry Street Settlement, where it won for Best Performance Short. Years later in 2013, “A Latina Prepares,” along with another monologue, “Don’t Knock It ‘Til You Try It,” was presented as a one-person show, Dos Mujeres, part of the 10th Annual soloNOVA Arts Festival, produced by terraNOVA Collective. Headed by incomparable artistic director Jennifer Conley Darling, terraNOVA Collective is a shared community of artists seeking to support innovative theatrical, diverse voices in New York City, as well as in Chicago. This is a group committed to the evolving art of storytelling. I had an amazing time being part of the soloNOVA Arts Festival, and I am proud as hell that both my monologues, “A Latina Prepares,” and “Don’t Knock It ‘Til You Try It,” are now currently listed on the Protest Plays website under the section for Women’s Rights.
Also in 2004, my play, 3 to a Session: A Monster’s Tale, a darkly humorous, highly sexualized Nuyorican riff on Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit, was first presented at INTAR for their 2004 New Works Lab. Curated by Daniel Jaquez for the Lab, and directed by Julliard alumnus Alex Correia, it takes place in a surrealistic realm between life and death. The play is an evocative nightmare of one man’s childhood abuse by his father, and the resulting demons that haunt him as an adult. And like No Exit, the story’s played out between one man and two women. The introspective and child-like Vincent, the smart, steely-eyed Ally, and the sexy, yet uptight plant-lover Paula, engage in sexual role-playing scenarios, which lead them into memories of loss, love, longing, and domestic violence.
The play gave me the chance to explore the volatile topic of machismo, and domestic violence in Latin@ culture, specifically violence towards children and women, along with the psychosexual connection between sons and mothers. I wished to present something that scared people (of course!), not as a cautionary tale, but as a work of pure theater, a dreamlike dive into the tragic consequences of abuse. It was my first real opportunity as a playwright to work within the openness of an artistic staff and generous actors willing to make a sincere commitment towards understanding my writing and what I was trying to achieve with my play. I was not entirely sure of the potential of what I’d written, and did numerous rewrites during the rehearsal process, including additional changes in between performances.
But at the time, while I was there in residence, the New Works Lab at INTAR was a warm, communal environment where I felt encouraged to take risks. The following year, 3 to a Session: A Monster’s Tale won for Best Play at the 2005 Downtown Urban Theater Festival at the Cherry Lane, directed by Jose Zayas. Then later in 2012, another production, this time in a Spanish translation, opened at the Teatro Coribantes in San Juan, Puerto Rico produced by Producciones Angel Bello. This play’s journey has been hugely gratifying for me as a Latin@ playwright. Other early, defining moments for me would include my play, Devil Land first being presented as a professional workshop at Urban Stages, then the following year, being selected as part of the 2007 SPF-Summer Play Festival in New York, produced by Arielle Tepper Madover. Another play, Lazarus Disposed, an absurdist one-act about shapeshifting and the correct way to deliver the punchline of a joke, was selected for the 14th Annual International Women’s Playwriting Festival at Perishable Theater in Providence, RI (grateful shout-out to Vanessa Gilbert!). The staff at Perishable Theater made me feel as though it were an honor for them to present my work, and I’d never been treated that way before, not by any theater. I got the chance to meet playwright Paula Vogel who told me my writing was brilliant. Yeah, it’s possible she was just being kind to a nervous Latina playwright from New York City, but it was still so cool! Sadly, these extraordinary festivals, staffed with supportive and thoughtful professionals that knew just how to talk about plays in ways that prioritized a playwright’s vision, no longer exist, but they were instrumental in connecting me with the people, places, and resources that helped to advance my work, and helped to lay down a strong foundation for me as a playwright.
Q: Who have been your playwriting mentors and heroes?
A: There have been writers I’ve long admired and have been strongly influenced by their work: Maria Irene Fornes, Miguel Piñero, Edward Albee, Edwin Sanchez, Suzan-Lori Parks, Paula Vogel, Tony Kushner, Harold Pinter, Bertolt Brecht, Antonin Artaud, Jean-Paul Sartre, Jean Genet, and Sarah Kane. I’m a huge fan of a number of Irish playwrights including, Conor McPherson, Sean O’Casey, Martin McDonagh, and Brendan Behan. And of course, there must be Shakespeare and the Greeks, forever and always. But “mentor” is a different thing for me. When I was in college, getting my acting degree, I had a mentor in professor Philip Chapman. But I don’t feel that I’ve ever had a playwriting mentor.
I pretty much had to find my own way as a playwright, although I certainly have my heroes. An important collaborator and early hero of my work was Jose Zayas, a talented director/dramaturge who, through The Immediate Theater Company, was hugely instrumental in first presenting my work to the public (Devil Land, 3 to a Session: A Monster’s Tale, Ghost Light, Dos Mujeres), and helping me find my voice as a writer.
The amazing and iconic Miriam Colon, artistic director of The Puerto Rican Traveling Theater who passed away this year, was a hero as well. Miriam fondly called me her “lone wolf,” because she liked my self-sufficient spirit, and she was a wonderful supporter of my writing, including my performance monologues. I miss her.
I first met artistic director Lorca Peress when she curated an early draft of Devil Land for the HotINK New Play Readings Festival at NYU/Tisch School of the Arts in 2006. We kept in contact, and in 2013, I won the MultiStages New Works Contest with Comida de Puta (F%&king Lousy Food), sponsored through her company, MultiStages Theater. Lorca produced and directed its world premiere production at the West End Theater in 2015, and it was glorious. My nickname for her is “Genius Girl,” because I think she’s absolutely brilliant, a powerful champion for women’s voices, particularly diverse women’s voices, and I’m so proud to call MultiStages an artistic home for my work.
Going To The River artistic director, Elizabeth Van Dyke, told me that when she first read Spirit Sex: A Paranormal Romance, a 10-minute piece of mine about a commitment-shy guy who finds a beautiful Latina satyr hiding out in his bedroom, she knew she needed to work with me. Thankfully, we have continued working together ever since. Like Lorca, Elizabeth is a dynamic champion of women writers of color. A trailblazer in the African-American Theater Community, as well as a brilliant actor and director. Plus, she’s a relentlessly upbeat and warmly generous colleague; always giving of her time and energy. In heading the GTTR Writers Unit at the Lark, Elizabeth’s commitment to providing a safe, artistic space for women playwrights makes her a great hero in my book.
I first met AJ Muhammad, assistant producer for “The Fire This Time” Festival at Luna Stage in New Jersey in 2014. What I most enjoy about AJ is his great love of theater; he will go out and try to see everything, and not just productions within the Black theater community. He’s intensely curious about all POC theater artists, which is wonderful and, sadly, very rare. But that’s who he is. He’s warm and generous with his time and attention, and has a great sense of humor. AJ was the production dramaturg for Comida de Puta (F%&king Lousy Food) and will be applying his research-oriented abilities to the developmental reading of Beige in May with the MultiStages New Script Development Series. As a playwright, it’s great having a dramaturg of AJ’s skill in my corner. It’s equally gratifying to count him as a friend and advocate.
The last hero I wish to talk about here is my husband, Anthony Penson. It is possible to be an artist without a loving, supportive spouse, but I really don’t recommend it. Anthony makes it conceivable for me to live as a full-time artist. There is no one in this world who loves and supports me unconditionally the way my husband does. He believes in me so much that he gets mad whenever I disparage myself and my writing. He thinks I’m a brilliant writer. I think he’s pretty amazing, too.
Q: What advice do you have for Latin@ playwrights at the beginning of their career?
A: Always remember to be generous with yourself. Why? Because you are choosing to be in a field that will most likely never acknowledge you as an artist, will never recognize your gifts and talents, and will rarely show you much acceptance or kindness. So please be kind to yourself every chance you get. You are an artist; remember that it is a privilege to be an artist. There is no one else out there who can do what you do and that, in itself, has great value. Treat your plays like they’re your children, be willing to stand and fight for them. Be brave. Be strong. Do not allow anyone to make you feel ashamed for what you’ve written. Do not allow anyone to make you feel ashamed for who you are. And whatever you do, limit your networking. I know that sounds strange, but it’s important.
Do not focus on the pursuit of blue thumbs and fake smiles. It’s your job to write. It’s your job to do everything you can to get your work out there and have your work seen by others. Even if it means doing your own thing, like producing a staged reading or a workshop of your new play, the universe likes it when you take an action on your behalf. Don’t wait for someone to give you a break. Network only when it’s worth your time (i.e. worth your time professionally). Otherwise, do yourself a huge favor and save your socializing for genuine friends and colleagues. You know who they are. Remember your time and energy is valuable. There is very little time for the nonsense. And keep in mind that there is not a single person out there who’s better than you. If they’re more successful than you are, more times than not, it’s because they had better connections, and better opportunities came their way, not because they were more talented.
Know that your heart will be broken. A lot. An awful lot. More times than you think you can bear. And it will hurt more than the break-up of any relationship. Break-ups are easy; rewriting is hard. Time and again, other artists will disappoint you, they will deliberately snub you, smile in your face, and then take advantage of you, manipulate and use you, look down their noses at you, give you the “stink-eye,” ignore you and your writing, like it has no value, and you are only wasting your efforts. It’s going to happen. Accept it; it’s inevitable. And it’s reasonable that you will be upset by this, but please, please do your best to not be bitter. I can’t emphasize this enough. You cannot write if you are bitter. Let me repeat this: YOU CANNOT WRITE IF YOU ARE BITTER. At times, it will be tough not to give in to the cynicism (trust me), but try anyway.
The theater is not just for a privileged few with the right connections. It’s great to know that there are honorable efforts coming from such vitally important theater initiatives like The Sol Project, a program that seeks to create more access and opportunities for Latin@ playwrights. Without question, Latinx Theatre Commons Steering Committee member Dr. Trevor Boffone’s 50 Playwrights Project deserves another raucous shout-out for shining a light upon the rich abundance of Latin@ writers across the country: Writers that are continuing to create beautiful, dynamic and vibrant work. Many of them, not established “stars,” but relevant artists in their own right. Fact is, there are some good folks out there that genuinely care and want to make a difference. But based on my own experiences as a playwright, the Latin@ Theater community in New York City continues to be comprised of many non-supportive, fractious cliques. The Latin@ Theater Community in New York City is not entirely supportive of its own. There, I said it!
We now have a fascist, racist, misogynist, xenophobic, authoritarian monster in the White House. We are living in dark, existential times. Who knows what will happen? So, as an artist, a woman, a Latin@ playwright, I choose to live an honest and authentic life. I will speak my truth. The Latin@ Theater Community in New York City is not entirely supportive of its own. I think a good deal of this is due to the palpable lack of opportunities and resources available to Latin@ theater artists. But I also think a lot of it is fear, insecurity, and anxiety. All this helps to create an atmosphere of crippling want, frustration, suspicion, and distrust among our own. It is a persistent, insidious hunger feeding itself through internalized racism.
Many of the self-proclaimed “gatekeepers” of our community are not particularly good stewards of their power. Their words say one thing, but their actions say another. They practice exclusivity while preaching inclusivity. This is an example of internalized racism. And racism, like sexism or ageism, regardless of whether it’s perpetrated outwardly or pointed inward, is a sickness. It should not be tolerated. I understand all power is relative and in very tough times, any amount is seen as better than none. But the underlying mean-spiritedness of certain cliques are not the way to heal and nurture our community. The truth is we need each other. This is particularly evident in the wide chasm between the generations.
The same can be said of other artistic POC communities in the city, such as African-American, Asian, South Asian, etc. But again, it’s internalized. That means we continue to smile through the hurt as we put makeup on our bruises, grab another glass of wine, and pretend to be supportive of each other. But the pain, dysfunction and anger remain. No one talks about it. No one. These wounds run deep. If you try bringing it up in mixed company, invariably people’s eyes will glaze over or quickly shift away from you. Their awkward smiles suddenly freeze, and they chuckle nervously, as they make hasty jokes. No one talks about it. Instead, everyone wants to keep acting like we all love and support each other, except that in many cases, we don’t. But we continue to “deal with it,” because it’s what’s done, right?
Everyone knows that artists work best when they have a support system in place. And when they don’t have support, it sucks, and you know it sucks. It’s isolating. It’s lonely. Everybody wants to get “in.” But there’s no such thing as a permanent “in.” And cliques, just like the ubiquitous blue thumbs, are bullshit. This means it’s possible to work through it. And we should. We always should. We should be true to ourselves as artists, take strength from our work, then go ahead and present it anyway. Even to an indifferent world, regardless of the support we receive. Somehow, we’ll still manage to achieve some level of cogency for ourselves; not just as artists, but as individuals. Our ancestors had a lot less than we have, but they still managed to make a life for themselves. So can we.
So please, please keep working, keep writing, and do your best to stay away from the Haters, particularly the ones (not all of them) that love to talk about “inclusion,” and “sharing,” and how important it is to “support” our fellow Latin@ theater artists, while their actions say the opposite. Yeah, those guys. Fuck those guys. No, seriously, fuck them. They are liars and hypocrites. Do your best to not have anything to do with them. If you can, don’t even be in the same room with them. You will succeed without them; in spite of them. Success does not always mean a Broadway production. There are many, many, many ways to succeed as an artist.
Surround yourself with the people who personally like you, enjoy your writing, and support you as an artist. As my friend and hero, AJ Muhammad says, you can have a crew of three people or a crew of three thousand, it doesn’t really matter, as long as there’s at least one person who supports you as an artist. You deserve to have this in your life. You do not deserve to be treated like shit; you do not deserve to have your work treated like it does not exist. Please don’t ever think that the Haters are right about you. Trust me on this: they’re not right about you; they’re assholes. People that go out of their way to hurt other people are assholes. Never try to get the Haters to change their minds about you, either. It won’t happen. They’re always going to hate you. They can’t help it, they’re HATERS. And like they say in the Geico commercials, “It’s what they do.” It’s their job. So, let them do their job, and you do yours.
As the old blues song goes, “I’d rather drink muddy water than sleep in a hollow log,” (thanks for the reference AJ!) be thankful that you probably don’t have to drink muddy water or sleep in a hollow log because perhaps, like me, you have a wonderful, loving spouse, friends and family that love and support you, and “get” your work. Take comfort in this, do your best to build upon it. Reach out to other artists. Not the sly, immature ones that will manipulate you for what they can get, then kick you to the curb once they’re done; I’m talking about actively seeking out allies. Like my heroes. My heroes are strong and powerful. These are artists I collaborate with, commiserate with over a cup of coffee, whose work I respect and admire (and the feeling is mutual). Do not ever feel that based on a common race, you have to support an artist who refuses to support you. You don’t.
Remember that for every one hundred “no’s,” you might just get one “yes.” And when a “yes” comes your way (and it will), oh baby, you better relish that! Boo, you better wrap yourself up in that cashmere throw and snuggle down into it like a dreaming kitten! Take enormous pride in your work. When things are going well, allow yourself to be a tiny bit insufferable; the ones that truly love and support you will understand. When things are not going your way, do stuff; go to the gym, do something about your fat ass, or go out for a nice brunch with friends, read a good book, binge-watch a cool, new series on Netflix… whatever.
Post good news multiple times on your social media, open your windows wide, and shout it out into the city night, over the police sirens, and car alarms. Be willing to submit your work to smaller, regional theater companies outside of New York. Theatre is happening everywhere, all over the country. Some of my most memorable experiences as a playwright have happened outside of New York City. Paula Vogel told me to not worry about getting my work seen in New York, but to focus instead on just doing the work. She’s right. So, keep writing, keep submitting, keep winning. The only way the Haters win is if you stop writing. So, don’t let them win. And once more with feeling: YOU CANNOT WRITE IF YOU ARE BITTER!!
Q: What else should we know about you?
A: I suspect that most of my responses here will be misunderstood. Either they will be misunderstood, or ignored, possibly with ice around the edges. As I mentioned to Trevor, one of the main reasons I was extremely uncomfortable with taking this questionnaire (and I sat on it for months, just ask him!), was because I knew that I’d need to be honest about my experiences as a Latin@ playwright. Yes, some of it has been good, but some of it has been bad, too.
For me, this means no sugar-coating, no vapid name-dropping, no assertions of the “perfect” career, the “perfect” connections, or the “perfect” high-profile credits. There will be no rainbows and unicorns, no pancakes, and string-cheese. Not here, not today. But there will be hot dogs! I want to be a Hot Dog Princess! Okay, so what does this mean? In a few articles that I read in Huffington Post and NY Magazine, there’s a wonderful story with a picture of a cute little girl who decided that she was going to dress up as a human-sized hot dog for her dance class rather than show up as a Disney princess (like everyone else). I loved this! Honestly, it made me cry. It gave me hope for the future. I think this girl is incredibly brave, and such an awesome bad-ass, and she’s decided to do her own thing, regardless of the outcome. Regardless of what anybody else thinks.
If I can, I would really like to follow her example. As long as I have breath in my body and a voice on this planet, I will do everything in my power to keep doing what I do as a Latin@ playwright, to keep my work out there, relevant and valid, and in front of folks. No, I’m no longer just starting out in my career, but I still have my dreams. And they are worthy and grand. They’re stronger than any peevish Hater’s mendacity. I still have dreams of being a Hot Dog Princess, and if not a Hot Dog Princess, then a Pagan Bear Queen, and if not a Pagan Bear Queen, then a Thunder Cat Priestess. When we as Latin@ artists, have the chance to succeed, then as a group, we all succeed. Not just the “stars,” but all of us. I pray that one day—one day—we can finally get it together and understand that.
Therefore, while we wait, I’m going to give a supportive, loving shout-out to four Latin@ playwrights that also do their own thing, create good work, and continue to share their artistic visions with the rest of the world (Thank God!). And like me, they’re older; which usually means it’s easy for folks to be dismissive and apathetic towards them. After all, that’s the way the world works. I get it. But that would be a mistake, because although Youth may be Truth–“Old” can be Bold!
Michael Mejias is developing two of his plays: The Shoo-In and Claudius Perez Macbeth with the Dramatic Question Theatre (DQT). Claudius Perez Macbeth will be produced as part of the DQT New Voices Double Play and will be presented in their 2017-18 season, in conjunction with A.R.T/New York. As executive producer for the DQT, he is producing both the New Voices Double Play Project as well as producing/developing American Woman, a series of solo shows by women of diverse backgrounds.
Noemi de la Puente is rewriting her original musical about illegal immigration, Manuel Versus the Statue of Liberty (NYMF Award winner 2014, 2015, O’Neill National Music Theatre Conference Finalist 2016) and recently performed selections from the show at the TDF Performeteria at The Baruch Performing Arts Center, and at the Princeton University Latino Alumni Conference. In addition, she is creating a new play, The Pet Play about people who love their pets too much. The piece will feature cat and dog puppets, and she hopes to collaborate with a professional puppet theatre.
Carlos J. Serrano is a playwright, poet, director, and theatrical producer. Some of his playwriting credits include South Bronx Versus Hollywood, Hold: A Requiem for a Bride, Not Just Another Puerto Rican Love Story, and No Better Friend, No Worse Enemy, which was produced at Repertorio Español. He has won several awards for his writing, and is a three-time recipient of the BRIO (Bronx Recognizes Its Own) Playwriting Fellowship, sponsored by the Bronx Council on the Arts. Carlos is currently developing a new web series, “The Thursday Ballads of Nelson and Lucy.”
Fred Rohan Vargas produces under his own company, Mixing It Up Productions. Last year, he presented a new children’s musical, Yaki Yim Bamboo at the 13th Repertory Theater to rave reviews. In 2014, he was nominated for 3 awards in the Midtown International Theatre Festival for his play, Tide Beyond the Rift. In the same year, his published play, Crystal, was produced and performed in Bucharest, Romania.
***For more on Desi Moreno-Penson, see:
- “Desi Moreno-Penson’s BEIGE Wins Arizona Theatre Company’s 21st Annual National Latino Playwriting Award” – Broadway World
- Read Desi Moreno-Penson’s work on the New Play Exchange
- “Comida de Puta (F%&king Lousy Food)” – Richard Hinojosa (nytheater now)
- “An intriguing trio: Perishable’s Women’s Playwriting Festival” – Bill Rodriguez (The Providence Phoenix)
- Watch “Don’t Knock It ‘Til You Try it” – Desi Moreno-Penson