Editor’s Note: OutSmart is the media sponsor of Swimming While Drowning, and will host OutSmart Night on October 3, including a special reception at 6:30 p.m. before the show at 7:30 p.m. To RSVP, go here.
Like a fly on the wall, Emilio Rodriguez’s play Swimming While Drowning hones in on the bond that forms between two 15-year-old boys at a revolving-door LGBTQ homeless shelter somewhere in these United States.
“It’s less about plot, or what happens, than it is about meeting two people you don’t often see onstage,” Rodriguez tells OutSmart in a phone call from Ann Arbor, Michigan, where the playwright works at the University of Michigan. He hopes to attend several performances of the October 3–21 production that will open the new season of Stages Repertory Theatre in Houston.
Rodriguez, who identifies as “Latino and LGBT, Puerto Rican and gay,” describes the play’s teenage leads as a study in contrasts. Angelo is a sensitive gay Latino who believes “the only way to survive is to find someone to trust,” while his reluctant roommate, Mila, is a brooding gay black-Latino who thinks “survival depends on being very careful who you trust.”
“It sounds heavy, but it’s really, really funny, too,” says Trevor Boffone, a queer University of Houston professor who has championed Rodriguez’s script since Boffone attended its 2015 “developmental reading” at a Chicago festival called Latinx Theatre Commons’ Carnaval of New Latinx Work.
Ever since then, Boffone has shared the play with students in his Introduction to LGBTQ Studies classes at UH. “They really like it. They find it quite authentic in how teenagers talk and what they talk about. The play has some pretty in-depth conversations about homelessness, coming out, and things like living up to ideals of masculinity. It hits on all the issues.”
Some of the story is told through poetry, which Mila says is “for bitches” but Angelo enjoys as an outlet for his feelings. The poetry-writing class that Angelo enrolls in at the shelter is similar to a theater class that Rodriguez has taught at a homeless shelter for teenagers in Detroit. He tells Mila, “You can join. The program is pretty small. I’m the only kid there.”
“I was a poet before I officially started in theater,” says Rodriguez, recalling how the first poem he wrote, about trees, won the Arbor Day poetry competition in fourth grade at his elementary school. “Later, I found out I was the only kid who entered, but I still hold on to that award.”
Rodriguez grew up in Riverside, California, and studied theater at the University of California-Irvine. In college, he began performing in spoken-word showcases. After graduating, he joined Teach For America. His two-year commitment, to serve as an educator in a school in a low-income community, landed him in Detroit.
Boffone says the poetry in Swimming While Drowning “is very much like slam poetry. It’s very current. When my students pick their favorite lines in the play and write about why, they typically choose lines of poetry. Those are some of the best lines and their favorite moments.”
The cast is comprised of Reginald Choyce as Angelo and Isaiah Holloway as Mila. Both young actors are performing at Stages for the first time. Holloway graduated from Taylor High School in Alief, which he represented at the 2016 International Thespian Festival, winning the national prize for duet acting with a classmate.
The play is directed by Alice M. Gatling, who made a splash last season at Stages as the director of Jackie Sibblies Drury’s 2012 play We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as South West Africa, From the German Südwestafrika, Between the Years 1884–1915.
Boffone is “very excited” at the prospect of seeing a play by Rodriguez performed on a professional stage in Houston. “I really believe in his work. It is very powerful. He is telling stories that need to be told. We don’t have a lot of clear representation of Afro-Latinos or Latinos in mainstream culture.”
What: Swimming While Drowning
When: October 3–21
Where: Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway
Tickets: stagestheatre.com (get 20 percent off any performance with promo code OutSmart2018)
This article appears in the September 2018 edition of OutSmart magazine.