Dallas — At the 10:30 a.m. show on Friday, May 17, a group of theater eighth graders from Trinity Basin School and I attended Christopher Rivas’ performance of his one-man work, The Real James Bond was Dominican. The play, accompanied by an original score by Wilson R. Torres on percussion and directed and developed with Daniel Banks, delivered more than an hour of socially powerful entertainment, with the help of well-placed albeit opaque and difficult-to-discern background projections. The rhythms and pace of the piece were marked by percussionist Torres, whose Broadway credits include In the Heights, Les Misérables, The Wiz among others.
The audience of mostly Latino kids heard the little known story of another brown body, that of 1950s Dominican playboy Porfirio Rubirosa, a man on whose life Ian Fleming reportedly based his character of James Bond (Fleming never admitted this, but there is plenty of evidence). He was a diplomat, soldier, polo player and race car driver. His name was associated with numerous elites. He married five times: to Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo’s eldest daughter, Flor de Oro; French actress Danielle Darrieux; the American heiress Doris Duke; another wealthy socialite, Barbara Hutton; and to another French actress, Odile Rodin. From the socialite heiresses he received generous alimonies which helped shore up his status. The man was an international jet-setter, one whose story has been white-washed and usurped by a famous novelist who left no trace of his inspiration’s brownness in the story.
The story that Rivas tells about Rubirosa mixes with that of his own father, a former building superintendent in Queens, New York. It also seamlessly blends with Rivas’ own story of identity formation, and as such establishes a poignant intergenerational conversation among all of them and us—the audience. In the talk-back at the end of the show, Banks asked us for a word that came to mind after seeing the show. The words “bold” and “amazing” stood out. I said “heartbreaking.”
Heartbreaking is the story of a man, Rubirosa who, although famous during his own time, is now forgotten. Heartbreaking were his many attempts to whiten his appearance to fit into the international jet-setting, white crowd. He did the Michael Jackson thing before Jackson was even born—a nose job to delete its wide appearance, and he had his skin whitened. Heart-wrenching is the still relevant fact that Rivas, his father, Rubirosa, and others still point out the need to whiten their skin, culture, and souls, in order to “make it” in this stronghold of Anglo, heterosexual male privilege.
Edgy yet heartwarmingly honest, Rivas begins the performance practically naked (he wears a pair of briefs), exposing his muscular brown body for our scrutinizing gaze. Yes, brown bodies have been cast either as exotic and desirable, or as dangerous and menacing “others.” He dresses, slowly telling his story, that of his own upbringing in Queens, trying to fit in while observing his father’s own tactics of “blending in.”
Rivas shares his many fears and self-deprecation: “I didn’t like myself, the way I talked, the way I looked… I wanted to be someone else…” He shares an early lesson learned in school when the teacher handed him a violin. “I don’t know how to play the violin,” he said. “Pretend,” was the response he got. The costs of pretending are clearly exposed as is the task of wearing cultural masks that falsely promise to further us in the “real” world. Heart-wrenching is the thought that still, in this society built on equality, our artists and stories still struggle to find a place at the table.
Rivas highlights the importance of the moment in which, in 2010 in a Vanity Fair article, the story of fellow Dominican Rubirosa hit him. He felt that Rubirosa urged him to tell his story, that of another brown man taken by whiteness. He immediately inserts the story of his Pops, a man who worked hard to blend in. The young Rivas notices how his father would speak differently to each person he addressed. Pretend to be like them and you will be. There is a lovely description of how his father took pains each morning to dress and coif his hair in order to be visually pleasing.
The Dominican notion of male prowess is embodied by the tiger, el tigre. Amassing the general characteristics of the macho man earned Rubirosa the disputable reputation for having a pepper grinder-sized member, although he was allegedly sterile. (The sexual innuendos were toned down for the young audience, Rivas said in a short private chat after the show.)
During the talk Banks addressed this theater full of future theater artists of color and stressed the importance of making one’s own table. Do not wait to be invited—make your own party, he said. Rivas’ narrative work is an example of this. As co-director of DNAWORKS, an arts service organization dedicated to using the arts for dialogue and healing, he and others like him set the example.
The Real James Bond was Dominican, which has one more performance at 3 p.m. Sunday, presents us with a deeply personal narrative built on personal experience and self-reflection. Rivas’ nakedness is his honesty hits us in the heart and the gut. He ends the show dressed in an elegant tuxedo, just like one that Rubirosa might have worn, because as we all know, not only do the clothes make the person (do they really?) and as the saying goes, “pretend until you make it.” The good news is that Rivas and others like him are making it on their own terms: exposing the machinations of a society that encourages us to put on masks in order to hide our race and cultural heritage in order to have a place at the banquet.
» Teresa Marrero is professor of Latin American and Latinx Theater in the Spanish Department at the University of North Texas. She is a member of the American Theater Critics Association and is on the Advisory board of the Latinx Theater Commons. She is coeditor with Chantal Rodriguez (Yale) and Trevor Boffone (U. of Houston) of the anthology ENCUENTRO: Latinx Performance for the New American Theater (May 2019, Northwestern University Press).