What is the significance of three Afro-Latina playwrights all having their New York City stage debut within a month or so of each other? This extraordinary moment carries with it decades of hard work and determination, as well as the high expectations of a community striving for accurate representation. It also reflects a shift in theatre culture, with the emergence of Afro-Latine voices bringing new forms of storytelling to the stage.
The Off-Broadway debuts of Sancocho by Christin Eve Cato at WP Theater (in a co-production with the Latinx Playwrights Circle and the Sol Project, now running through April 23), Vámonos by Julissa Contreras at Intar Theatre (April 22-May 21), and Bees & Honey by Guadalís Del Carmen, a co-pro with the Sol Project at MCC Theater (May 4-June 11), mark the culmination of years of labor, manifestation, and possible ancestral intervention for these three artists. All three have been produced widely: Cato by Road Theatre Company and the Latinx Playwrights Circle, Carmen by Aguijón Theater and UrbanTheater Company, and Contreras by Middle Voice Theater Company (she is also the creator and producer of the podcast Ladies Who Bronché).
The topic of Afro-Latine representation hit a cultural height around the 2021 release of the movie adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s stage musical In The Heights. Audiences noticed the scarcity of dark-skinned Afro-Latine actors in lead roles, sparking conversations across all corners of the internet about the intersection of Black and Latine identities, as well as colorism within the Latine community.
Sancocho, Bees & Honey, and Vámonos all touch on the experience of being Black within Latinidad, on colorism within families of different shades and skin types, and on the importance of owning and claiming one’s Blackness. It’s a rare opportunity for Afro-Latine folks, who are too often marginalized within an already marginalized identity, to be seen.
This chance to represent their community on an NYC stage has been a long time coming for Cato and Contreras, who are NY natives, and Carmen, who is based in NYC but was raised in Chicago. With these productions, three unique artists with vital stories to tell about family, love, and healing take centerstage.
I had the privilege of facilitating a conversation between Christin, Julissa, and Guadalís about their plays and how they are feeling about having their Off-Broadway debuts alongside each other. What follows are edited excerpts of that conversation.
Guadalís del Carmen: It’s definitely an alignment for these three shows to be happening in one season. It feels like it was meant to be. It’s been decades in the making. Contrary to some of the comments I have read in different spaces, there has been a lot of work and a lot of expertise and craft put into creating these plays.
Julissa Contreras: We’re professionals. We have worked very hard to get here. This is not some equal opportunity thing that’s happening in theatre and suddenly we appeared out of nowhere. No, this is decades-long work. It excites me to be in this season and watch it bloom in a way that is beyond my own personal circle of success as an artist, and it’s happening for my entire community. But it really is because we made the decision to band together.
Christin Eve Cato: Remember that conversation we had, all three of us? It was the middle of the pandemic, and the three of us very intentionally met and we were talking and healing with each other. I don’t think it is a coincidence that a couple of years later, us three are in the same season. The ancestors were definitely conspiring with us.
I’m not sure which comments you were referencing, Guadalís, but what we’re doing now is we are creating a new genre—not a “new” genre, but we are reinforcing the genre of Latinos. The way we tell stories is not going to be the same formula that you’ve seen over and over again. It’s not going to be the same sort of payoffs that people are used to having. It is gonna be messy. It is gonna be jumbled, because that’s what we’re experiencing right now as a people. But the messiness—that is put together strategically, with expertise. What I mean by expertise is expertise in the storytelling, and expertise in the subject material. Theatre is always going to be changing. The way we tell stories is always going to be changing. I think that’s what we’re challenging right now. We’re challenging what they’re expecting of us. We’re not going to give them what they’re expecting. We’re going to give what our community expects from us.
Julissa: You’re walking into spaces that are predominantly white institutions or have predominantly white leaders, and you are coming in with a story that is authentic to you, and somehow, though it is universal in its nature, people are automatically responding to what’s on the surface. But I think that that’s what’s so beautiful about groups like Latinx Playwrights Circle and Sol Project—that we have gotten into an age of theatre where more Black and brown communities are gathering in their respective corners in order to support these institutions in learning and growing. We have people in our corner doing the work.
Guadalís: I think Julissa hit the nail on the head with a lot of that. I think all three of us have been actively working in theatre, writing, or just hustling to do work that is representative of not just ourselves, as artists, but for our community. For me, coming from a place like Chicago, there weren’t a lot of Afro-Latine artists that had space to tell their stories. I moved to New York, expecting like, oh, Dominicans are all over the place, so our stories are automatically getting into these spaces. But it’s no different in New York City; there has been a lot of pushing the rock uphill. Which is why, for me, it’s been important to figure out how we can work within the community to tell our stories. And then bust the doors as wide open as we possibly can.
Christin: I think the community Guadalís is talking about is what’s so essential and necessary. I’ve been in New York City my whole life, and I remember back in the day the Latino community was there, the theatre community was there, and it was strong—but it was divided. It wasn’t like what we see now with these partnerships. We have to be united in order to really push through those doors, as Guadalís was saying. Theatre is hard to make. You need a lot of support. As Latinos, we have such a huge community inside New York City. Our stories really deserve to be on stages. We are seeing that with the culture right now, how necessary these stories are. There are people outside of the theatre industry, who aren’t your regular theatregoers, who will come out and see a show if they identify with it, and that’s something that we’re learning. Since Sancocho is a story about generational trauma, there’s a lot of people who are coming to the show, and are experiencing lots of feelings, lots of emotions, and it’s testimony that there’s a lot of community healing that has to get done.
Guadalís: It feels like there’s such a hunger in our community to connect. Storytelling is an ancestral gift, and it’s almost like that Spider-Man quote: With great power comes great responsibility. I definitely feel that, especially because within Latino stories we haven’t seen Black Latinos being centered—like, the story being about us, not the supporting character, or we’re off to the side to make it funny, but at the center of the story. So I definitely feel the weight, but it’s also an honor.
Julissa: This is why we tell stories. This is why most of our storytelling and images were oral and community-based, and you sat around in a circle, because these are moments of important storytelling retention for change and shift among the people who are walking and living off the stage. It’s a lot of work.
I think what is super important to the excitement and the positivity in this moment is that it’ll be the first time that my family can come out and watch a full production of mine, period, because it’s my debut, but they’re going to understand it. This is not going to be my mom and the elders being like, “Oh, that was nice, it was pretty, but I don’t know what I was watching.” It’s actually being told in a way where they can be part of the theatrical conversation too. I think there’s something so important about how theatre is intergenerational that is oftentimes lost. I feel very proud to see that no one’s left out of this story in any aspect of my life.
Christin: I love that you said that, Julisssa, about our families coming to experience and understand what they are watching. I think of my opening night and my family. I think it was the first time that any of them had truly connected to theatre—and I have been doing theatre for a long time. This is my New York debut too, right? It’s all of ours. So it’s like this is the first time they get to see a work that I write in New York City that they fully actually understand and can relate to.
What I love about these three plays is that there’s so much Spanish and bilingualism happening in them. I’m wondering, how do we keep this going? How do we keep this a thing? How do we not abandon this, and allow this to really flourish? Some of these critics might come to plays that have Spanish in them and they don’t understand, so they just write about what they understand.
Guadalís: Which is unfair. I don’t know that we can change that, because I think there’s a lot of xenophobia and prejudice that comes with that. People have no problem going to operas, people that don’t speak Italian. But opera is a very well-funded institution. And what is it that they enjoy? The art form and the flair, the performing and the music, all of these things. Why doesn’t that translate to work that is in Spanish?
Christin: It’s so important that we have more representation in the producing world, because when it came to Sancocho, because I had all of these Latine producers in this room, my non-negotiables weren’t even topics of negotiation. For instance, the casting needs to be exactly the way it is written. That was a huge non-negotiable for me. Caridad needs to be a Black Puerto Rican woman and Renata needs to be a light-skinned Puerto Rican woman. That is essential to the story. There’s colorism in this family that they both have to address, and if it’s not going to be cast that way, it’s not going to be clear.
Julissa: I’m a truth teller. So perhaps the conversation needs to be about how we are expanding the ways in which we hold containers for other ways of storytelling that are interesting, right? I think about visual art a lot, and how people can say, “Oh, they just threw a bunch of paint on the wall, I don’t see the art in this.” But somehow this is worth millions of dollars? If you feel cool and well versed at being able to analyze a piece of art in that way, allow yourself to actually feel cooler and more expansive as a person who is able to understand communication styles and nuances beyond your culture. That is what it is. Either you give it the attention and respect it deserves or you don’t.
I feel like if you’re a critic who comes to watch and review our shows, you gotta understand that you’re the one who is uncool and doesn’t get it. It’s not that we don’t get it. We’re doing our thing. You don’t know how to understand our thing, but it is not lacking. It is just a gap that needs to be filled, so the conversation should always be about filling the gap. Drop in and learn something, then critique it from that place.
Jacob Santos (he/him) is an Afro-Latine artistic producer who is an MFA candidate in theatre management at David Geffen School of Drama at Yalem, and is currently on fellowship at the historic Apollo Theater in Harlem NYC. Instagram @jac_santos23, Twitter @REALjacsantos.
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