Dallas — There are only two characters in Emilio Rodriguez’s play Swimming While Drowning: Mila (whose birth name was Milagros) and Angelo. Both characters are Latinx and racially mixed, addressing the complex issues of both Latinidad and blackness.
While the original script calls for two actors to play teenage gay men, for this production director Jorge B. Merced has Mila played by a transgender man. Rodriguez comments on this choice, which resulted in some slight script adjustments, in this TheaterJones interview. The Cara Mía Theatre Company production is directed by New York-based Merced, who also directed Evolution of a Sonero as part of their Latinidades: A Festival of Solo Shows this summer, and is a long-time member of the New York-based Puerto Rican company, Pregones, one of the oldest Latinx theater companies in the country.
J Davis-Jones, who uses they/them pronouns, plays Mila. Angelo is played by Dominic Pecikonis (he/him). The play puts forth a series of vignettes in the lives of two youngsters (temporarily) living in a gay youth shelter. Rodriguez conducted interviews in various shelters, and adjustments were made to accommodate North Texas references.
As such, the lives of these youngsters have a precarious feel that the play’s episodic structure echoes. There is no central conflict, since the ones they face are within themselves and in relationship to their circumstances. As such, there is little by way of a conventional resolution – an open-ended aspect that left me and my friends discussing Mila’s final choice.
While there is no traditional, central plot, there is tension. It is palpable between Mila, who has been toughened on the streets to be secretive and cautious of personal relationships; and Angelo, a poetry-loving youth who is searching for deep, personal connections and a life beyond violence through his literary talent. Both live as homeless kids, deprived of family love and support. Both have suffered abuse of various kinds.
This piece beautifully witnesses the changes that each of the characters undergo through their contact with each other. Clichés of gayness are fortuitously avoided; rather each character displays their own stories, with a sense of defiance (Mila) and poetic hope (Angelo). Interspersed throughout were intimate moments of rap and poetry that disclose both hurts and hopes for each. Mila’s challenges as a trans man are briefly alluded to in a scene in which they look in the mirror with their oversized jacket off, noting how going to the gym is helping their body changes.
Scenic designer Tara Houston (who also gave us the intimate set design in Virginia Grise’s Your Healing is Killing Me in Cara Mía’s Latinidades) delivers a set that defines each of the characters’ personal space as it conveys both their isolation and the intimate look into their lives. A hanging sculptural element on Angelo’s “side” is especially evocative. Jutting out into the limited space of the set, the design offers both regular chair/riser seating, and a number of small, cabaret tables close to the stage (the audience is on the LCC’s stage).
I was seated in the latter, which at first had me feeling dubious about the choice. However, as the play progressed, the closeness made every nuanced expression by J David-Jones’ Mila and Pecikonis’ Angelo a pleasure to watch. This lies somewhere between the intimacy of a cinematic close-up and the somewhat magical sense that an audience perceives when capturing the two actors excelling at their craft.
With the participation of musical composer Armando Monsivais, costumer Ryan Matthieu Smith (giving each actor character-defining details), lighting designer Cooper Mitchell, and fight choreographer Jeff Colangelo, Swimming While Drowning will appeal to audiences with an open mind and heart.
The show opened with an introduction by Cara Mía Theatre Company’s Education and Community Action Coordinator, Cheyenne Raquel Farley on the important issue of LGBTQ+ teen abuse and homelessness in our own community and nationwide. The production of this play fortifies Cara Mía’s ongoing engagement with both artistic quality and relevant social concerns.
Swimming While Drowning is a must-see for teens and adults, particularly those whose families have been affected by these issues. This play opens the door to productive and compassionate conversations.
At 5:30 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 7, before the evening performance, there will be a community conversation about LGBTQ youth, facilitated by Josh Cogan of Outlast Youth, with panelists Portia Johnson of City Square, Bryon Carona-Hannah of Dallas Hope Center, and youth advocate Mayra Fierro. The conversation is free and open to anyone. RSVP by emailing Cheyenne@caramiatheatre.org.
» 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 co-editor with Chantal Rodriguez (Yale) and Trevor Boffone (U. of Houston) of the anthology ENCUENTRO: Latinx Performance for the New American Theater (2019, Northwestern University Press). Her Spanish-language play, La Familia, is published in Teatro Latino: Nuevas Obras de los Estados Unidos (2019, available on Amazon). She recently finished writing her third play, Second-Hand Conversations with Irene, which pays homage to two talented women with dementia.