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The 50 Playwrights Project: Houston Scholar Launches Project to Promote Race, Gender Equity in Theater

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By Josh Inocéncio

Earlier this year, Houston-based Latina/o Studies scholar Dr. Trevor Boffone launched the 50 Playwrights Project (50PP), which is an online resource that compiles snapshot interviews with Latina/o playwrights. Boffone has featured an array of playwrights, from famous names like Quiara Alegría Hudes (In the Heights, Water by the Spoonful) to emerging playwrights like Houston’s own Jelisa Jay Robinson (The Stories of Us). But in addition to breaking down the barriers that define success, Boffone has also heavily featured LGBTQ playwrights.

“My goal for this project has always been to feature underrepresented voices. In this case, I try to highlight LGBT, women, and emerging writers,” Boffone says. “While many of the writers were already known to me when I launched the project, I have worked to fill gaps by asking other theater-makers and allies for playwrights that come from underrepresented categories.”

Prior to launching 50PP, there was no database of Latina/o playwrights. Boffone sought to fill this vortex partially because he did not have a similar resource while he was a doctoral student at the University of Houston.

“In 2016, there are few accessible digital resources for [email protected] arts,” Boffone points out. “The project’s goal is to take up digital space and update the narrative about the American theater.”

Due to the project’s aim to provide resources for not only students but professional theater artists seeking to produce or at least learn more about Latina/o work, Boffone has been able to recruit established playwrights in the field, many of them part of the LGBTQ community.

Perhaps the most famous names in LGBTQ Latina/o theater that Boffone has included thus far are Virginia Grise, co-author of The Panza Monologues and author of the 2010 Yale Drama winning blu; Ricardo Bracho, author of The Sweetest Hangover and Sissy; and, Luis Alfaro, author of the solo play Downtown and a Chicano adaptation the ancient Greek play Medea called Mojada.

The strength of Boffone’s project also rests on interviewing these playwrights about their newest work and upcoming projects.

Both Alfaro and Bracho are Los Angeles-based playwrights. Alfaro is the playwright-in-residence at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival as well as an associate professor at the University of Southern California. According the 50PP website, Alfaro is in the midst of writing “The Golden State” trilogy which focuses on “faith in the Central Valley of California, specifically Pentecostalism in the Chicana/o community.” Bracho is working on a manuscript, Puto: The Selected Plays of Ricardo A. Bracho, as well as a sci-fi play entitled Been to the Moon, which “follows Mack and Elias, a black-brown gay couple, postnegro philosophy grad student and barrio botanist-herbalist as they travel in their spacecraft, Ovum-1 to Galaxy 1B, where Mack dissertates while Eli grows weed.”

Grise, now based in the Bronx but originally from San Antonio, was in Houston just this March performing her latest work, Your Healing Is Killing Me, at the Multicultural Education and Counseling through the Arts (MECA) space, curated by Dr. Estevan Azcona.

“I call it a performance manifesto. The piece is my reflection on living with post-traumatic stress disorder, ansia, and eczema in the new age of trigger warnings, the master cleanse, and Kickstarter-funded self-care,” Grise says on the 50PP website. “It’s based on lessons learned in San Antonio free health clinics and New York acupuncture schools; from the treatments and consejos of curanderas, abortion doctors, Marxist artists, community health workers, and bourgie dermatologists. Your Healing Is Killing Me seeks to replace individual self-care with collective self-defense because capitalism is toxic and The Revolution is not in your body butter.”

Grise has consistently returned to Texas to work on creative projects with other writers based in the state, such as openly gay poet Joe Jiménez in San Antonio.

50PP’s representation, however, doesn’t end there. Boffone has also interviewed Chema Pineda-Fernández, a “bigender two-spirit, multiracial Salvadoran Nawat and Sephardic, persyn of Central American birth” based in Washington DC and writes plays featuring indigenous American characters.

By asking the simple question, “How do you identify,” Boffone has cultivated a space for playwrights to not only state whether they are “Latino” or “gay,” but also include a mosaic of identities that inform their writing.

Alongside these queer playwriting giants, most emerging playwrights Boffone has interviewed in his project identify as LGBTQ. Rising names include Krysta Gonzales, a black and Latina actress/playwright originally from Texas but now working in Los Angeles; Emilio Rodriguez, a half-Mexican, half-Puerto Rican playwright currently in Detroit; and, Wilfredo Ramos Jr., a gay Puerto Rican playwright based in Chicago.

“When theater companies Google emerging writers, normally there is little information,” Boffone says. “If no one is writing about a playwright, then that gives the illusion that their work is not to be taken seriously. This is not the case. I have found that the project’s visitors and supports have been most excited about the playwrights that are new to them.”

And these younger voices are doing critical work. Gonzalez’ play Más Cara was part of this year’s Austin Latino New Play Festival produced by Teatro Vivo and Scriptworks. In addition to writing his recent play Swimming While Drowning, which will premiere in 2017 at Teatro Milagro in Portland, Rodriguez has co-founded Black and Brown Theatre, a theater company dedicated to representing artists of color in the Michigan theater scene.

As a scholar based in Texas, Boffone has also ensured that voices across the Lone Star State are featured in the project.

“There is high quality theater-making happening all across the state,” Boffone relates. “But these voices are typically left out of the national conversation. If someone is brown and queer, then the obstacles to overcome are even more of a challenge.”

By including queer Texas voices, such as Grise, Gonzalez, and Gregg Barrios, 50PP is also challenging the narrative that quality Latina/o theater is only emerging from the West and East coasts. In essence, the 50 Playwrights Project seeks to equitably represent playwrights from varying backgrounds across the nation without succumbing to canonical biases.

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Josh Inocéncio

Josh Inocéncio is a frequent contributor to OutSmart Magazine, a playwright, and a freelance writer. A Houston-area native, he earned a master’s degree in theatre studies at Florida State University and produced his first play, Purple Eyes, before returning to Texas last May.

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