On Saturday, Dec. 9 at the Chicago Cultural Center, there will be a reading of New Personalidada play by actor, playwright and former Windy City Times 30 Under 30 honoree Nelson Rodriguez. The program, part of the Studio Theater Residency Pilot, is being presented by Vision Latino Theatre Company in partnership with the city's DCASE (Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events) department.
In a recent talk with Windy City Times, Rodriguez discussed everything from the production's queer theme to his family to his own newest athletic passion.
Note: This conversation was edited for clarity and length.
Windy City Times: You initially had a reading for New Personalized in 2018. I'm curious as to why you're bringing it back now.
Nelson Rodriguez: I first started writing this play when I was in college. I took a playwriting course in about 2007, and I already had the story in my mind and in my heart, so I had some initial scenes. Since then, I had not written a lot of dramamostly poetry and some essays, really for my own expression.
Then an opportunity showed up in my inbox for me to join a writers' circle. I submitted and ended up being accepted, so I was very thankful to write alongside other writers, some of whom were professional. And I wanted to revisit the script, so I wrote a full play with kind of the same idea as the initial story. So, in 2018after I had a full draftI had an initial reading for this play that I basically produced myself.
The writers' circle I was involved in had dissolved. So another opportunity showed up in my inbox, this time to submit to a playwrights' festival. It turned out to be for the INICIOS festival, which is part of the Chicago Latino Theater Alliance, or CLATA. They gave me a one-week workshop with space and a little bit of funding, and there was a public reading. They introduced me to a director named Xavier Custodio, who also runs Vision Latino Theater Company, and we really hit it off and worked well together.
Then, DCASE reached out and asked if I'd be interested in submitting for this residency and, of course, I was. I was looking for a chance to work on this play again and my letter was accepted.
WCT: So, for our readers, could you provide a plot synopsis?
NR: Sure. The play is called New Personalidad and it's a bilingual play, in Spanish and English. All four characters are bilingual and they speak Spanish and English throughout.
It is about a Jehovah's Witness family that is struggling to financially prosper. They're also struggling to stay true to their faith, but their biggest struggle is their acceptance of one of the queer members of the family. A lot of the play hinges on all of the characters dealing with that particular issue.
WCT: Interesting… While I was researching the play, I came across the plot summarybut I didn't see anything that mentioned it was queer-related, so I'm glad you mentioned that.
NR: When I first wrote synopses for the script, I put it that the family was dealing with "the loss" of one of the family members because the family treats him like he's dead because he's gay. But in more versions of the script, I realized that the queer component was really important, and that I didn't want to frame it in the synopsis that he was dead. I wanted it to appear that it dealt with queerness and loss.
I didn't want audience members to come in thinking about his queerness. I wanted them to come in thinking about this family that was struggling because, in the beginning of the script, the audience could easily believe that he had died. It's not until the end of the play that the audience realizes he's alive; they just treated him like he's dead.
WCT: So he's dead to them.
NR: Yesto them.
WCT: So what inspired this play?
NR: So this play is semi-autobiographical. I would say 40% is about memories from my childhood. I grew up as a Jehovah's Witness and was with the faith until I was about 20 years old. My dad was an elder of the congregation and my mother was a full-time pioneer witness going door-to-door, so I was a preacher's kid in a lot of ways.
It began as me reconciling some of my feelings toward my family and the faithbut the play surprised me. I thought I was writing about myself and as a way to grapple with things, but I actually wrote a play about my parents and their feelings. So my own family life was the inspiration for the play.
WCT: So have they seen this play or are they planning on seeing it?
NR: No. I'm estranged from my parents. I came out to them when I was about 23 and they didn't take it well. I tried to maintain communication with them for a few years, but that didn't prove fruitful; I drove to their home and tried to talk with them but they didn't want anything to do with me. So, no, my parents won't be coming to see it.
I have fragile relationships with my two older sisters; they are still in the faith, but are more open-mindedbut there is still that barrier. Jehovah's Witnesses are pretty homophobic; they don't practice a "live and let live" ideology.
However, a lot of my chosen family will be coming to see the reading, so I'm excited about that.
WCT: What do you want people to take away from this reading?
NR: This play is about respect. I endeavored very hard to make this play something that people of faith and people of no faith can enjoy and see the value in. I believe that if a Jehovah's Witness were to see this reading, they would believe that the parents are doing the right thing. But someone in my positionwho has been disowned and who was victimized in some waymight look at it and go, "He's trying to do everything he can to have a relationship with them. It's just not working."
But I want people to see that if these [characters] respected one another and found common ground, their story could've been so different. Instead, they're ripped apartand I feel like that's like a lot of what we're scared about right now. There are these very deep divides in this country that are going to rip us apart, because people don't understand and respect each other. Understanding one another is key to us not being torn apart.
WCT: This play is quite different from [the Vision Latino play] That Must Be the Entrance to Heaven, in which you played a boxer.
NR: [Smiles] That play was an absolute joy, and it was also directed by Xavier Custodio. I had taken a break from acting on stageI was doing voiceovers and on-camera work, mostlyand I worked with Xavier; we really hit it off. A few weeks after helping me with the first round of my play, he posted that he was looking for actors for this play.
I submitted my headshot and resume. When I read the play, I said, "Oh, my God. They're professional boxers vying for a world title." And I fell in love with the role of Juan. That very day I went to a boxing gym and found a coach so I could audition. I was lucky enough to get the role and it changed me in a lot of ways. I never considered myself particularly athletic; I was more of a brainy kid. But I trained four times a week and my coach taught me how boxers fightand I also did my own research, reading biographies and watching documentaries.
It was such a passion project but it was also the kind of art that I had always hoped to get involved in. It was such an opportunity to challenge myselfnot just physically, but this character knows he's at the end of his life, and he questioned if he should sacrifice and win earnings for his family. I felt very comfortable and confident in the role, although it took a while; people could see the machismo but also the vulnerability.
The truth is that the amount of discipline, respect and love that the athletes have for their sport and for their opponents made me look at boxing in a totally different way. I have a complete appreciation for them. Boxing is intensely personal but it's also really mental. I went to a boxing event this past weekend and we got to cheer people on.
WCT: So you could handle Mike Tyson now?
NR: [Laughs] Yeah, right! I would respectfully watch from ringside.
I still train twice a week, at EKF, with Coach Andrew [Thorp]. I've sparred a little bit although I'm not a great boxeryet. I really love it! I had never found something that was one great exercise but that I could also tie to a skill I'm making gains at, slowly but surely, and it's fun. It was a game-changer.
WCT: I wanted to conclude this conversation by asking something I've asked several people this year: For you, what is it like to be part of the queer community in today's America?
NR:You know, there were moments over the last two or three years when I felt really afraidspecifically, when Roe v. Wade was overturned and we heard justices talking about the next thing in their sights, like marriage equality. When they talked about marriage equality, I thought that, even within the bubble of Chicago, people would be emboldened to be bigots. I'm anti-gun and I don't own a gun, but there were weeks when I looked up [information] about firearms because I thought the country would keep spiraling. That was scary.
It's such a contrast because we have seen the gains that queer people have made in the United States. Within my own realm, the entertainment industry, I think we'll look back on now as the golden time with LGBTQ content and outlets. I hope it can reach people such as queer people in rural areas; it's such a lifeline for them. But I also hope it can reach people in other areas where queerness is frowned uponthat people might have enough compassion and curiosity that they're open to just seeing us as people and maybe having their minds changed.
The free bilingual reading of New Personalidad will take place Saturday, Dec. 9, at the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington St., at 11 a.m. Visit www.chicago.gov/city/en/depts/dca/supp_info/studio_theater.html .