Dallas — By the time Cara Mía Theatre Co.’s production of Swimming While Drowning opens on Friday, Detroit-based Emilio Rodriguez’s play will have had six full productions and five staged readings, but this production will be unlike any that have come before it. Under the direction of Jorge B. Merced, this production takes the story of two cisgender gay Latino teens and rethinks it through a fresh approach to casting that sheds light on the issues that transgender teens of color face today. Swimming While Drowning runs Nov. 30-Dec. 15 at the Latino Cultural Center.
After volunteering at an LGBT homeless shelter and interviewing several people who had lived in them about their experiences, Emilio Rodriguez wrote Swimming While Drowning, a one-act play about queer youth feeling like they must lie about their lives in order to stay at a shelter, which seldom have space and are oftentimes underfunded. Swimming While Drowning focuses on two queer Latinx teens living at a shelter in Los Angeles. Angelo Mendez leaves his home out of the fear of not living up to his homophobic father’s expectations. At the shelter, his roommate is Mila helps him find his authentic voice. In the end, Angelo learns how to cope with heartbreak through writing and performance.
The play is not plot-driven per se, but instead is dedicated to character and thematic development. Rodriguez offers a series of vignettes between the two teens that highlights their friendship while also weaving in issues of (un)belonging, race, ethnicity, sexuality, and the ever-increasing familial and societal expectations both Angelo and Mila face. At its core, Swimming While Drowning is about survival. What must each teen do to survive their homelessness, their losses, their youth, and, ultimately, their sexuality? How can Angelo and Mila help each other survive?
To re-imagine this play through a trans lens in Texas should not be lost on audiences. Since 2015, 15 trans people have been killed in Texas alone — notably trans women of color. The state is among the most violent places for the trans community as it is a leader in transgender homicides with around half of them taking place in DFW. To say this is a community that is underrepresented in DFW theatre would be an understatement.
TheaterJones chatted with Emilio Rodriguez a few days before opening night.
TheaterJones: Swimming While Drowning has had professional productions in Houston and Austin within the last year. How have Texas audiences received the work? What has been the most surprising thing to you?
Emilio Rodriguez: Texas has been so good to me. I’ve loved the audiences, theatres, and talent Texas has cultivated. I think the most surprising thing has been the range of audiences who connect with the piece for different reasons. I obviously had young LGBT people of color in mind when writing but older audiences and audiences who don’t identify as LGBT people of color have also had really kind and meaningful feedback. [Playwright and actress] Charlayne Woodard once said, “The more personal something is, the more universal it is” and that has really resonated with me during these Texas productions.
Maybe you should think about moving to Texas.
Never say never. There are a lot of really talented actors I’ve loved working with in Texas and the theatres and audiences have been an absolute pleasure. Anytime a Texas theatre invites me out, my answer will always be yes!
Director Jorge Merced is re-imagining Swimming While Drowning by casting a trans actor in one of the roles. What was your initial reaction to this? Did you ever think this was even a possibility?
My initial reaction was “Awesome! (Beat) How many pages of rewrites do I need to do?” but once we talked about it more, it became clear that it would be more interesting and forward to not explicitly address it. People who identify as trans are part of our LGBT community and that T often gets ignored or made to feel “otherized,” I really liked the idea of Angelo intuitively accepting Mila as the pronouns he would like to be called by. I think this could open doors for a lot of casting possibilities including casting the roles with trans actors, casting the roles with gender non-conforming actors and casting the roles with women. There are a lot of new possibilities I’m excited for as the play continues to be remounted and I think plays should change with the times and take on fresh perspectives as they go out into new areas.
Did you make any textual changes?
There were a few words that were cut to make the lines more open to this casting and then there were some new lines added just because I always see new things every time I revisit this play. There was a new poem added and old poem cut and then quite a few changes on scene 4, which was really exciting to be in the room with the cast and crew during that process and work the changes on their feet. Both of the actors are incredible and have helped me see new perspectives to both characters.
What has been your involvement in the process?
I was able to be in the room for one week of rehearsal and I go back tech week for a final involvement. It was rewarding and incredibly helpful to get to be in the room with the cast and crew and I look forward to being able to spend more time in the room on other productions and other plays. It really is the most helpful way for me to work and has the biggest effect on my writing.
What else are you working on?
There is a play about gentrification from your own people I’ve been working on and meaning to edit, and I’ve also just started the seeds of a new play about the generational differences in the LGBT community. I also just had a production of my play Latinos Who Look Like Ricky Martin at Yale Summer Cabaret and I’ll have a production of my play God Kinda Looks Like Tupac at Theatre Nova in Ann Arbor, Michigan next summer.