From an early age, Darrel Alejandro Holnes learned the importance of giving in order to help sustain communities, “especially in times of need, like now,” he explained by email. The Panama-born artist carved a path for himself as a multidisciplinary creator. He’s a musician, theatremaker, educator, and poet, who in one of his most vibrant pieces describes superstar Rihanna as “the rude girl is with child in the Instagram pic,” showcasing his ability to convey the zeitgeist, only to top it off with “I was raised by her kind.” One foot into the future and an awareness of all those who came behind.
His work is inspired by Panamanian Congo, Afro-Cuban masquerades, experimental German theatre, and opera. For Holnes, “it’s all theatre.” Noticing the lack of industry support and representation when it comes to Afro/Black-Latinx stories and characters, Holnes teamed up with Guadalís Del Carmen, a playwright/actor and co-artistic director of LatinX Playwrights Circle, to create the Greater Good: Commission and Festival, an initiative meant to provide Afro/Black-Latinx writers with small grants so they can create short plays that reflect the times.
“One of the things that we’re really excited about is allowing Afro/Black-Latinx writers to have a space where they can create work that speaks to the now and then that work will be archived,” said Del Carmen, also by email. Del Carmen’s own Bees and Honey, was featured in 3Views’ Spotlight Series as one of the works of 2020 that had a production canceled or delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Bees and Honey was set to have its New York City premiere as part of LAByrinth Theater’s residency at the Cherry Lane Theatre, after having been developed with The Sol Project and LAByrinth’s Summer LAB Intensive. Del Carmen’s perceptive world-building, and richly imagined dialogues are evident in this modern romance which, if theatre producers are smart, should be a no-brainer to produce even digitally.
Del Carmen and Holnes working together to increase Afro/Black-Latinx representation is a breath of fresh, and rather quick, air at a time when systems within the American theatre are being challenged for the ways in which they’ve upheld white supremacy, but the effects of demands being made by BIPOC artists might not be seen until after live theatre is happening again.
Excited to play with the form and medium of the works they will commission, the plays will be presented at the 2020 Greater Good Plays Festival produced by LPC and Pregones Theater/PRTT, Del Carmen and Holnes are kick-starting year one, of what could become one of the most thrilling initiatives in NYC. They discussed their work, philosophy and identity in an email interview, which has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Why did you want to make theatre?
Darrel Alejandro Holnes: I saw Heather Headley in Aida when I was a kid and my family did a tour of the US that included New York. My mom had seen her perform on the Rosie O’Donnell Show and decided to bring us that summer. It was the most compelling way I had experienced story at the time. I knew in that moment I wanted to experience and explore more but it wasn’t until college that I was able to explore it more with Mark Medoff, an early mentor of mine, in the Edward Albee summer workshops at the University of Houston. Albee and Medoff taught me that theatre is not just a way to tell a story but it’s a way to create and share energy and experience with others. And that’s one thing that sets it apart from film for me, if the play is “the happening,” then the audience is in “the room where it happens” when they are in the theatre. It’s an incredible and a one-of-a-kind experience.
Guadalís Del Carmen: I sometimes ask myself this same question, but I’m continuously reminded of the wonders that theatre creates in people. I still remember the first play I did when I began pursuing an acting career, the adrenaline, the rush. It was a Tato Laviera play, Bandera a Bandera, a meaningful piece that was rooted in the community we performed in. The reaction from the audiences when my first play was produced. The feeling of bringing folks into a space where they can come together to share in receiving a story is why theatre is special. Feeling the same energy the actors are feeling in real time, there’s nothing like it. But for me, being able to see, hear, tell stories of nuestra gente, of the people I grew up around, of the heroes history classes have ignored is so important. We playwrights are Griots. My ancestors preserved their histories through storytelling, and it feels right to tell their stories in this way.
Guadalís you didn’t have a formal education in theatre, did this in any way affect the way you were perceived when submitting plays, both in terms of how gatekeepers reacted, and also in your own confidence? Did you doubt yourself because you didn’t do this in college?
GDC: I’m gonna need you to stop looking into my soul, thank you. Yeah, I’d say not having a formal education in theatre has very much affected how people have perceived me and my work. All the things from “she’s not ready,” to “this isn’t the right format or structure” (all while praising María Irene Fornés and other structure breakers…)
But on top of that there’s the thing of not seeing worth in the characters I write about. I already had this feeling of: “I’m not trained, I shouldn’t be doing this.” I’ve learned that a degree doesn’t make you a storyteller, or writer, or an actor. It gives you the tools you need and prepares you for the work to be done, so this is by no means any shade to trained artists. But my biggest truth is that I have been a storyteller all my life. It’s what I was put on this earth to do, just ask my mom.
We playwrights are Griots. My ancestors preserved their histories through storytelling, and it feels right to tell their stories in this way.Guadalís Del Carmen
You’re both Afro-Latinx, have you ever seen yourself represented in theatre? If not, what’s the closest you’ve been to seeing yourselves represented?
DAH: I’ve seen Black actors cast in In The Heights; I don’t think their roles described the characters as Afro/Black-Latinx but to see a Black body represent Latinx culture was great. Every time I see Black artists with connections to Latin American and the Caribbean like Colman Domingo, Ruben Santiago Hudson, and Black Panamanians like Tessa Thompson, Saunas Jackson, Y’lan Noel, Donnetta Lavinia Grays, and Tatiana Ali perform, I feel represented.
I also, personally, identify as African American, the two are not mutually exclusive to me. Not anymore. The way I see it now, Black/Afro-descended is my race and Panamanian/Latinx and US American are my nationalities. So every time I see African Americans onstage I do see that part of my identity represented.
GDC: To be honest, not really within Latinx work, this is partly because there isn’t enough Latinx work being produced, and because the work that is produced is a very specific narrative that many times isn’t inclusive. In The Heights was the closest thing to me seeing myself as a Dominican performer represented on stage, and it’s the show that inspired my first play, Blowout.
Carmen Rivera’s Julia De Burgos: Child of Water was a pivotal turning point for me as a female artist, I played the title character. It was during this time that I was growing out the relaxer in my hair so there was a lot of ugly crying I did in that play. The struggles of being an artist, yet being misunderstood and disregarded by your fellow artists, and being Afro Latina at that. Marco Antonio Rodriguez’s work makes perfect Dominican sense to me. Beyond that, most of the work that has touched me the deepest or I have been able to see myself represented have been works by African American playwrights.
The pains and the struggles, but also the joy and resilience that is birthed from that is unique to being Black. There are nuances obviously, in being Black from the U.S. or being Black from the Caribbean or being Black from the U.K., etc. I found healing in Aleshea Harris’ What to Send Up When It Goes Down, and I found so much of myself in Suzan-Lori Parks’ The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World A.K.A. The Negro Book Of The Dead. Pearl Cleage, Katori Hall, and Ntozake Shange are also writers where I often see myself represented. And while these works are somewhat culturally removed from how I was raised, the conversations around being Black, or the experiences that come with being a Black woman definitely allowed me to see pieces of myself that I don’t often see in theatre.
I’d be remiss to say this COVID-19 interrupted season had some of the most inclusive Latinx works being produced, from Ren Dara Santiago’s The Siblings Play, to Marco Antonio Rodriguez’s adaptation of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and my own play Bees and Honey, it was one of the rare times Afro/Black-Latinx stories and characters were front and center in one season on Off-Broadway stages. Not to mention productions from Andrew Rincón’s I Wanna Fuck Like Romeo and Darrel’s workshop showing of Bayano, both incredibly epic and beautiful stories. It definitely felt like there was a shift happening.
How has the intersection of your identity affected the way in which you’re perceived in a field that still prefers to think in the binaries of Black and white?
DAH: It’s so frustrating that American theatre rarely looks at race and ethnicity outside of the Black and white binary. I’ve thought about quitting several times because the battle to tell Afro/Black-Latinx and Black Caribbean stories seems like too steep a hill to climb sometimes. That’s one of the reasons I am co-creating this initiative, I don’t want other Afro/Black-Latinx playwrights to look at this landscape and feel as if there is no place for them, no place for us, to wholly exist. I don’t want them to consider giving up as I have considered giving up many a time. I hope this initiative helps us all keep moving forward, para que podamos continuar la lucha.
GDC: I think so many people, especially gatekeepers, have an incredibly narrow view on Latinidad. There’s this big confusion on race vs. ethnicity. And, in many ways, the work that has been done for the most part has completely erased Black Latinx folk, has barely acknowledged Indigenous people, and there is never any kind of mention of Asian Latinx folks. So when I write about being Dominican or being a Black Latina, theatre decision makers seem to have a glitch in their systems where they have a hard time computing what being Latinx is.
It’s a disservice to try to cram a story into a play that is reflective of the 20 plus countries and the multiple races that make up Latin America. It’s an infinite spectrum and that’s all the more reason to explore the different narratives that make up being Latinx. It’s also been frustrating to be in NYC where the largest group of Latinx are Dominican (almost a million of the total city’s population) and we aren’t part of the larger conversation in this city. NYC also has a large Afro/Black-Latinx community from all backgrounds. Both of these demographics go largely underrepresented or not represented in theatre (and many other mediums for that matter) because we don’t fit in a neat box of perceptions. And there’s also anti-Blackness.
Darrel, you’re Panamanian which is one of the few countries in Central America where Black people seem to be acknowledged by the rest of society. I grew up in Honduras and lived in Costa Rica, both countries in which Black folks were either discriminated against or totally ignored. Can you talk about the differences in how we speak about race in Central America and in the States?
DAH: My parents were leaders or very successful, so they were the first Black Panamanians to accomplish a variety of goals in their fields. As you can imagine, they had to suffer a lot of racism because there are fewer Black people at the top of any industry, even in a country that is as Black as Panama. So, I grew up very aware of racism at home and as their child, I was often the only or one of few Black kids in privileged institutions like the private schools I attended. I experienced a different kind of racism than I imagine the average Black kid in Panama experienced because in most of these spaces I was never the majority.
But that also meant that when I was in spaces where I was the majority I was usually around family, and I come from an incredibly large family. So, to an extent, I’m always looking for that sense of family when I interact with other Blacks, especially Afro/Black-Latinx, sometimes I find it. Those are really good days.
Race in Panama is largely determined by your skin color, which is where the concept of “mejorar la raza” (improving your race) comes in. If you married white and produced lighter-skinned children, in the old days, some self-hating people would say you were “improving your race” because lighter or whiter in their minds was safer. Lighter skinned kids lived longer; they weren’t as affected by racism as darker-skinned kids.
When I grew up in Panama, people no longer thought this way but the racist legacy that thinking created, like the Canal, still runs straight through the country. It’s taken a long time for the white Latinx or white-adjacent Latinx oligarchy that owns most Panamanian businesses to hire non-white or non-light-skinned models, actors, and folks like TV reporters to represent their businesses or projects because many believe that in order to compete with or be as good as US media they have to be as white as possible, even when US media has become more diverse.
We still see this now on networks like Telemundo and Univision all throughout Latin America and the US. It’s awful. So much Black Latinx, Indigenous, and Afro-Indigenous talent in Latin America gets overlooked and ignored even when we are the majority.
We talk about people as if they were made from dry and wet ingredients instead of love.– Darrel holnes
A major difference when defining race in the United States versus Latin America is that in the US one drop of African blood historically made you “Black” in the eyes of many laws to deny legal privileges to as many as possible and to discourage miscegenation. But in many Latin American countries, one drop of White/European blood meant you could claim an “other” category that fundamentally distanced you from African-ness or Blackness. This is one of the reasons we have so many different terms for people of mixed race en español, depending on the person’s mixture and how far removed they are from the mixing they could identify using a wide variety of terms.
It’s strange to talk about this history using this idea of “drops” or “mixes”; I feel as if I’m talking about pancakes. But that’s what it is like sometimes. We talk about people as if they were made from dry and wet ingredients instead of love.
Can you share what your experience as Afro-Latinx has been during the Black Lives Matter protests?
DAH: It’s been really hard for me to watch state sanctioned violence against Black bodies on repeat. It makes me constantly question if migrating to this country was worth it. There is even more state sanctioned violence against Black people in Latin America, countries like Brazil have higher rates of cases than the USA. One of the victims was a Black Panamanian named Javier Ambler; he died in Austin at the hands of a police officer who used excessive and unnecessary force. My heart goes out to him and his family. For these reasons, I urge Afro/Black-Latinx people who are not taking this seriously, who see themselves as separate from African Americans, to take it seriously, and to join our call for police reform and justice.
GDC: During the protests after Eric Garner’s killing, my timeline was half about soccer and the other half about racial injustices and police brutality. Real talk: it gave me anxiety. This time around it’s a bit more cohesive with some reckoning within the Latinx community and its centuries old anti-Blackness beginning to happen. It’s a slow progress, but it’s happening. It still gives me anxiety, but that has more to do with social media in general than with the divide. There’s always this fine line that I feel like I’m walking sometimes, mainly because this country does define everything through a Black and White lens.
Even though I was raised in the U.S. and have always been surrounded by African American and Black American culture, at home I was raised culturally Dominican. I learned English in school and navigated two very different worlds growing up. I’ve felt this triple or quadruple consciousness that has intensified over that past few years. What it means to be Black in this country, what it means to be Latinx in this country, what it means to be Black in the Latinx community, and overall, what it means to be a Black woman in these spaces.
Regardless of where I am, I am perceived racially. Now more than ever I do feel that it’s important to put in the work to address the anti-Blackness in the Latinx community and foster better relationships with the African American community. If Black Lives really Matter to this community, that needs to include your Black primo (a,x,e) as well.
Guadalís, you’re an actor as well, Darrel, you’re a poet and a musician. How do these other hats come into play when you put on your playwright hats?
GDC: When I wrote my first play, it was two-fold: write a character for myself (because casting directors never knew what to do with me) and write a world I wanted to see onstage. Although, I’ll admit once I wrote Blowout I wanted to enjoy it as a playwright and not perform. I do enjoy writing roles for actors that haven’t been given the opportunity to flex their range. I don’t know if it’s a “the actor in me recognizes the actor in you” type of thing, but knowing what it’s like to be typecast sucks, for lack of a better word.
It’s incredibly detrimental to a performer to not do roles that challenge them and push them out of their comfort zones, testing the full range of their abilities and allowing them to soar. It’s so much the case that white actors are allowed to play anything (Black, white, Latinx, Asian, cis playing trans, etc) and allowed to grow and explore, yet BIPOC actors are limited to the imagination of one or two dimensional characters or stereotypes of race, ethnicity, and gender. There are so many worlds and so many characters I want to explore, and it may very well be that it’s the actor in me that keeps pushing me to create roles that are deep and complex.
If Black Lives really Matter to this community, that needs to include your Black primo (a,x,e) as well.guadalís del carmen
DAH: Like Aristotle, the playwright is a poet in my book. I incorporate poetry in all of my plays, typically through monologues, and I try to bring music into everything I do. When I was a kid music is what drew me to language. The first thing I ever wanted to write were songs. That’s why musical theatre hooked me into theatre, it was the music. And seeing Heather Headley and the cast of Aida perform changed my life because it showed me how many of the forms of art that I loved could work together to create an exchange of experience and energy with the audience.
BIPOC often end up having to create spaces for themselves in industries that fail to recognize them, how did you identify the lack that led to creating the Greater Good: Commission & Theater Festival?
DAH: I know that theatre itself isn’t to blame for the bias of producers and artistic directors who don’t understand or value Latinx or specifically Afro/Black-Latinx voices and stories. So, I wanted to create this initiative to encourage Latinx playwrights and theatre makers from my community to keep making and to not wait for other people’s approval or permission. This isn’t about creating another gate to keep, this isn’t about me, this is about artists helping artists during times of need, this is about the greater good of the community, that’s why I gave it that name.
I am inspired by my family’s tradition of simple giving to make this gift for ‘the greater good’ of the American theatre community. I have seen, firsthand, how LPC and Pregones Theater/PRTT help sustain Latinx theatre in New York and how they continue to make important contributions to the American theatre, so I am happy to partner with them on this initiative. I have also seen firsthand how artists in our communities help each other find housing, afford rent, buy food, and support each other’s productions. I want to honor that spirit of generosity by simply doing my part with this gift.
GDC: Darrel came to me with this idea to create a commission in the earlier stages of COVID-19, right before the protests erupted. When we circled back to plan things out, it really felt imperative to make sure Afro/Black Latinx work was being highlighted. One of the things that we’re really excited about is allowing Afro/Black-Latinx writers to have a space where they can create work that speaks to the now and then that work will be archived. Ten years from now when folks are looking at the work that was being created in 2020, there is a specific place to find Black Latinx voices. What happens many times, all the time let’s be real, is that marginalized voices are left out of the narrative, and while it is a lot of work to put this together, we know the responsibility we have to make sure we’re carving a space out for each other in a very intentional and meaningful way. I’m also excited to see the new and different ways folks are thinking about doing theatre. This is a small step to larger things coming.
I never realized how much I craved mentorship until I became a mentor myself. What do you wish you had when you were getting into theatre?
DAH: Like most people I experienced theatre education in college, and I wish theatre departments would decolonize their curriculum, create more financial support for students to study theatre, and spend money on initiatives to recruit a more diverse and inclusive student body. There are several colleges throughout the country that are predominantly of color but have theatre departments that don’t reflect the diversity on their own campuses. Why is that? I’m inspired by folks like the alumni of FSU/Asoló Conservatory Program who have called out the racism and white supremacy in their college’s theatre department. We need to see more of that across the academy in this country.
GDC: I do wish I had more nurturing and more access to spaces and resources when I started out. I’ve worked outside of theatre full time to be able to pay for rent and living expenses, so while I’ve had unofficial mentors and folks looking out for me, I haven’t had the time and space to fully dedicate to my work. I’ve learned so much in the time I’ve been doing theatre, so if I wish for anything, I’d probably wish I was a bit more aggressive and more unapologetic starting out so I’d get more of what I needed.
What do you want playwrights who submit their work to the Greater Good: Commission & Theater Festival to know that this initiative is not?
GDC: This is not something that is going away. We are building and creating to keep making space. This is just the beginning. But also, this isn’t the end all, keep writing and submitting your work everywhere.
Ten years from now when folks are looking at the work that was being created in 2020, there is a specific place to find Black Latinx voices.guadalís del carmen
Many playwrights think of Broadway as their goal. Is that the case for you? How has the idea of Broadway changed for you during the pandemic?
DAH: I think there should be a Broadway theatre in every borough of New York City, and that it should be more affordable. It pains me that so many of my students who are raised in New York City see their first Broadway shows in my class because they were never able to afford it before. It’s ridiculous to me that the tickets have to be so expensive that only privileged tourists and wealthy New Yorkers can afford it. I’d love to follow the steps of some of my mentors and see my plays on Broadway one day. At the same time, I don’t want anyone to have to choose between eating and seeing my show on any given night. So, I hope things will change. And I think moving beyond “The Great White Way” is a start to make Broadway more equitable. And don’t even get me started on the need to decolonize opera at the Met…
GDC: Sigh. This pandemic has spurred so many feelings, and depending on the day, you’ll get a different answer from me. One of the things is I’ve been getting sleep. It’s erratic and all over the place, but I’m not running around the city going to work, then rehearsals, then a show, then a meeting, then this or that. I’ve been following the Nap Ministry and I’ve followed Ariana Huffington who is a huge advocate for proper sleeping. As a society we take sleeping and rest for granted. It makes us more stressed, gives us high blood pressure, and causes early death.
And if you’re BIPOC, multiply that times ten. There’s been a huge pause for me during this pandemic and learning to be mindful of myself and the habits that I picked up when I was on survival mode have taken over much of my thinking. I’m also hella stressed cause people are more volatile than ever, but I digress…What does this have to do with theatre/Broadway? Everything. NYC in particular is such a hectic, go-go-go type of vibe that you don’t realize the effects that it has on your body and your emotional health. Before, my goal was productions, building my organization and creating community. During this pandemic, community is more important than ever.
I think that the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests have exposed so much of the inequities not just in this country, but also in our industry. I’m very interested in finding the ways in which Broadway can be more inclusive and more accessible. I don’t know that Broadway was ever a goal, it’s always been a nice thought, but I’m more interested in figuring out how to make theatre more accessible to the Dominicans on Dyckman. If Broadway is a goal it’s how to take Broadway to Dyckman. Anyone has any thoughts, or any producers wanna holla at me, please send them my way, I got stories.
Read more about the Greater Good: Commission and Festival here.