Julissa Contreras is back in town. The Dominicana playwright recently traded city life for Colorado. “I needed fresh air and found that my inner peace can be found in the outdoors in Denver,” she told Manhattan Digest recently as we sat on a bench and sipped coffee at DeWitt Clinton Park in Hell’s Kitchen.
At least through May 21st, Contreras will be in New York City for the world premiere of her play Vamonos, produced by INTAR Theater Company and the Radio Drama Network. In addition to playwriting, she also writes poetry, is the host and creator of the hit podcast, “Ladies who Bronché” and works with several brands and companies on their DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) initiatives.
We spoke with her about the play, her corporate experience, and what can be done to improve representation of marginalized and minority communities.
MD: In your own words, how would you describe Vamonos?
JC: The play is a slice of life piece about a Dominican family in the Bronx in 2002. That was a time when the country was in a very uncertain place. There was much talk about the war in Afghanistan, the September 11 attacks, and George W. Bush’s leadership. How does life transform in moments like this, even for a small Dominican family in the Bronx. One of the family members is in the Army, so there is an interesting dynamic to explore there. It’s both a period piece and a look at a Dominican family, which is rare to see in theater.
MD: So it is set against the backdrop of real events, but is the family inspired by your own?
JC: It’s a combination of several families and there are nods in it to my own family but at the core, the person who inspired it was my cousin, Raul Rosa, who served in Iraq. I was in fifth grade when 9/11 happened, so I had this journey of being a young person, looking at how adults dealt with these events. The play is inter-generational.
MD: There was a lot of Anti-Muslim sentiment immediately after 9/11. Do you think that carried over into the Latino community as well?
JC: Yes. Absolutely. We touch on that in the play as well. That sentiment came from a place of fear and not knowing what sense to make from the media. The fear factor penetrated people’s psyches as they were navigating the city. I try to dig into the source of that fear and hate in this play.
MD: When did you start working on the piece?
JC: In 2017 actually. I was in a writer’s group and was stuck writing a different play. I was tired of writing adult voices and wanted to look at how young kids observe the world. That felt more specific to me. This play is from the point of view of youth.
I put the play down and picked it up again during lockdown. Intar approached me and asked me if I wanted to workshop it. From there, it became a full production.
MD: I’m sure that the play has changed drastically in our post-lockdown, George Floyd, BLM moment?
JC: It really has. It started as a much more lighthearted comedy. After I saw the state of the world in 2020 and more specifically, the election, it started to trigger in me some more serious thought. I didn’t think that the news would be so traumatizing if I hadn’t learned at such a young age how much my presence matters in these spaces. Policies and laws are built around us! This play looks at how the politics affected this family in 2002, but also what we’ve learned or not learned since then.
MD: Are there stereotypes you hope to debunk and/or correct in Vamonos?
JC: Yes. One of them is the male trope that all Dominican men are cheaters or that they are dangerous and that you must worry about them in a particular way. I also want to explore racism and the notion that all Dominicans don’t think they are black. That’s actually not true, but a lot of people carry that misconception. That came from being under a dictatorship for 30 years in a way that didn’t allow for people to elevate to a level of consciousness to identify with their blackness as Latinos. There is a stigma that Dominicans don’t like black people which is absolutely not true. We are black people who have a very delicate relationship with Haiti. But that is politics and not the people.
MD: I read your Washington Post Opinion piece decrying Lin-Manuel Miranda for not truly painting an authentic portrait of Latinos with his In the Heights Movie and that it was too white-washed. As a white man who recognizes his privilege, I must ask: Do you think he should at at least be given credit for trying to portray the Latino community or do you still it is harmful to a people and community when it is not fully represented?
JC: First, let me say that I love Lin-Manuel Miranda. Also, I think two things can be true at once. The reality is that people in any marginalized community who are taking the lead on something that hasn’t been done before and to expect perfection is to deny that they had barriers to break through in the first place. Lin is still a hardworking storyteller who deserves to be supported.
The conversation about the movie not being enough isn’t a personal jab at Lin. It goes beyond that. It’s one that says, ‘We’re here, but we can’t quietly let people assume that this is all there is because then when we try to come forward with stories that are different and dynamic, people start to compare it. If they accept the notion of this bubbly Washington Heights portrait and write a darker, deeper story, people won’t want to accept or produce it because it doesn’t make people “feel good” or it doesn’t “fit the narrative.” We don’t just tell stories to make money. We tell stories to tell the truth. We have to create space for both the whimsical stories that In the Heights provides along with stories that depict the truth.
MD: Let’s switch topics and discuss your corporate roles in DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) programming and developing . At the beginning of the year, Forbes magazine posted an article stating that “A lot of companies are experiencing employee fatigue with diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives. Workers feel exhausted, frustrated, and skeptical that their DEI efforts will result in tangible outcomes.” Why do you think it’s not working, and how has your corporate experience shaped your artistic life?
JC: It’s not working because it’s not coming from the heart. Companies don’t know how to tie the investment unlearning into their bottom line. It’s not prioritized in a way that is effective. A lot of people in leadership don’t recognize that the way in which they speak and move is influenced from the top down. People aren’t committing to the layer of change.
On the corporate level, I’ve learned how to pitch and speak to the heart. I actually bring more of my creative side into the corporate world actually.
MD: How did you get into playwriting?
JC: I started performing at LaGuardia High School. I joined MCC Theater’s youth company and then was taught by playwright Lucy Thurber who mentored me. I didn’t go to school for playwriting, but I sort of learned from those around me while I was living in New York City.
MD: What other projects do you have in the works?
JC: I’ve been putting together a book of poems and I want to jump back on the horse and continue work on my play about a hair salon in the Bronx. I want to continue this wave of writing that gives actors the opportunity to play people like themselves. I’m also doing some podcast pitching with Kat Lazo.
Vamonos runs through May 21st at Intar Theater 500 West 52nd Street between 10th and 11th Aves., NYC. For tickets and information, click here.
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