CHRISTOPHER RIVAS AS A CHILD: Good morning Woosa (ph)
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD 1: Good Morning Jafa. (ph)
CHRIS AS A CHILD: Good Morning Movie. (ph)
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD 2: Good Morning Jafa.
CHRIS AS A CHILD: Those are fine yams you have there.
CHRISTOPHER RIVAS: This is me in my first grade play. And the yams I’m talking about are sweet potatoes. I'm playing a turtle - a large, child sized, talking turtle.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: But not for you Jafa (ph)
CHRIS AS A CHILD: True, I have nothing to trade for food or no money to buy any. Surely there’s no harm in admiring and imagining how good your yams taste. [fades down]
[Jazzy music enters.]
CHRIS: Ever since I can remember… I’ve loved being up on stage in front of people. Performing. It just feels right to me. Having everyone’s eyes on me — smiling, or laughing. I would do little dance routines for my family - I’d put on my windbreaker and turn on the fan and do my best MJ. I was the ultimate class clown and the host of all the talent shows. I was also into magic:
CHRIS AS A CHILD: I have three cups right here. *everyone claps* Whoa, oh my God.
CHRIS: I had a spark in me. So, I auditioned for a performing arts high schools in New York City — shout out to my school, Talent Unlimited NYC! I starred in plays like The Crucible, The Exonerated, and Anna in The Tropics. That spark turned into a full-on fire–I mean, I’m a professional actor now, living and working in Hollywood.
But I’ve had moments where it was really hard to keep that spark alive in me. Moments where I thought: Do I really belong in this industry? Am I just a phony? Do I have what it takes?
One big sobering moment came right after high school. I had spent four years working on my craft, and I thought I was pretty good. Shit, I thought I was the best. So I auditioned for the preeminent theater program in the world: Juilliard. The place that trained people like Robin Williams, Viola Davis, and Adam Driver. I thought there was no way I couldn’t get in. But I didn’t get in. And all of sudden, I went from an uber-confident kid with big dreams… to working as a personal trainer on South Beach living with my parents in Miami. I had a great tan… but no spark.
I was 18 years old, and a family friend – someone I refer to as my second mother, shoutout Ellie – saw the aimless state I was in. She offered to connect me with this guy who had a gift for mentoring young people. We got in touch, and this man literally flew me to New York, where I met him in his office. His name…was Imero Fiorentino.
IMERO FIORENTINO (ARCHIVAL): Meeting with Christopher Rivas, on [start fading under] Saturday, September 16th, 2006.
CHRIS: Imero recorded our conversation because he thought I might want to hear it someday. But this is the first time I’ve hit play on that old tape cassette. For this podcast.
IMERO (ARCHIVAL): OK, so I guess the first thing to do is to talk about what would you like to walk away from here with besides a million dollars? Which you're not going to get.
CHRIS (ARCHIVAL): Maybe a little direction.
IMERO (ARCHIVAL): Well, I don’t know. I'm able to give some advice, I hope. I don't find you a job. I'm not a shrink. I'm not any of those things. But I've done this for a long time and I enjoy doing it and I enjoy helping people. So that's why I do it.
CHRIS: Imero was a pioneer in the field of lighting design. You know, like figuring out how to bring life to the screen and stage. He lit Ray Charles, the Bolshoi Ballet, Epcot, even a couple presidents! He was incredible, and lighting had been his spark ever since he was a kid.
But in High School he had an accident that blinded him in one eye. As he lay in the hospital, he figured it was the end of his dreams. But then, his mentor came to visit. From his hospital bed, Imero said:
IMERO (ARCHIVAL): You always said I'd be the best lighting designer ever. How can I do that now? She said, “You know what? We're going to change that. You'll be the best one eyed lighting designer.” I squeezed her hand and I said, “you know, I can do that.” And I set out to do that, and I did it. Obstacles, no obstacles. What you need: Support, and don't even think for a minute that you can do it by yourself. Cause you can’t do it alone.
CHRIS: This conversation was exactly what I needed at that moment in my life. It lit my spark again.
IMERO (ARCHIVAL): If you could be anything that you want to be – Aladdin's lamp genie came out and granted you a wish — could be anything you want. Forget money, forget peer pressure, forget how difficult it is… What would it be?
CHRIS (ARCHIVAL): It would be a successful actor on stage.
IMERO: Tell me why. Why does acting intrigue you so much?
CHRIS (ARCHIVAL): There's nothing like the feeling of being able to play with people's emotions, it’s a power that you know, not everyone can do. People say, I can do that, but they can't. And I love it. You know, I love jumping out of my skin and going, becoming someone else, which is what it is. It's become a passion for me, all around. I could consume my whole life with that and be completely content, you know. Not to act because I want to be a millionaire just enough to pay my rent and, you know, put food on my table.
CHRIS: Imero doesn’t even say that much to me in this conversation. But he listened. And he asked me questions. Imero created & gave me the space I needed to know that my dream was enough. That I was enough. That I belong. [beat]
I gotta say…listening back to this conversation, I really can hear how much love I had for acting. But I can also hear a kid who's still a bit naive. Back then I said I loved acting because I could “PLAY with people’s emotions.” That’s not how I look at it now. Now it’s about creating spaces where people can FEEL their emotions…spaces where people can feel seen and safe to EXPLORE their emotions. Whether it’s acting on a stage, in front of a camera, or even talking to y'all in this podcast, my creative goal is to give people what Imero gave me when I was 18. The feeling that you belong. The feeling that you’re enough.
[Theme music enters.]
CHRIS: And that’s what we’re gonna talk about today. Art. Belonging. And Enoughness. And how the story of a Dominican playboy-diplomat became a part of it all. I’m Christopher Rivas and this is Rubirosa Episode 8: The Play.
JOHN LEGUIZAMO (ARCHIVAL): I was about I guess eight years old and I used to love to go to family bbq’s at Flushing Meadow Park where about 50 or 60 of my cousins would get together, barbecuing on one hibachi. [audience laughs]
CHRIS: Any of y’all know what this is? Ooh, I hope you do. I really do. This is John Leguizamo in his one man show “FREAK.” I saw this show on Broadway when I was just a kid and it dumped a pile of dry kindling on my spark. It set me ablaze.
JOHN LEGUIZAMO (ARCHIVAL): And yo, yo, we would play that salsa music so damn loud that it’d interfere with NASA communications.
[Salsa music briefly plays, then switches to a different salsa song.]
CHRIS: I watched John Leguizamo, a Columbian kid who grew up in Jackson Heights, Queens, just like my mom. I watched him, in a packed theater, salsa dance, fall, and tell the truth. He was confused, he was afraid, he was horny, excited, anxious, he was himself. On Broadway — in front of a lot of rich, white folks. It felt like he wrote me a permission slip that night. From John Leguizamo to Christopher Rivas: “hey man, you can do this, too. You, Christopher Rivas, Brown kid from Queens, can get on any stage you want, stand in front of 500 people and make them feel YOUR pain. Laugh with YOUR joy. See you.”
I went home, hopped in the shower, and started dreaming up a life where I had my own one-man show. I took that dream with me to High School. To Miami where it lay dormant while I was a trainer. To Imero’s office as a lost kid. And after that, I carried that dream to an acting conservatory in Los Angeles: CalArts, where I took a playwriting class taught by my friend Peter Parshall Jensen.
CHRIS: Can I ask you, what was I like back in college? What do you remember about me?
PETER JENSEN: Um Guapo,
CHRIS: Y’all remember Peter from episode one? He’s the guy who sent me that vanity fair article about Rubi because he saw a resemblance.
PETER: That was one of my first impressions of you was hey que guapo. you know, he's like not just not just being handsome, but like the ladies fawned over you. You know? You were one of my best students in that class, you know, in terms of, like, really following through and being, you know, and being hungry, to keep searching, to keep developing, to keep growing. You weren't afraid to mess up.
CHRIS: Peter’s class about playwriting was the first place where I realized I could actually like, write a play. A one-man show like “FREAK.” I could be in it and I could write it.
But I wasn’t sure what my play would be about. Then Peter sent me the article and I met Rubi. A fellow Dominican who tried so damn hard to belong. I felt connected to him. Because I wanted that, too. We all want to belong.
[Percussion starts fading in.]
CHRIS: I think you might know where all this is going…the place it all started… the stage
CHRIS (ONSTAGE): I’m 8 years old, and I wanna be an assassin. Which is a weird thing to want to be as a kid, I get that, but that was my chosen profession. I would play like this for hours.
CHRIS: I wrote my play. It’s called The Real James Bond Was Dominican. And what you’re hearing now are clips from the play TODAY. From a performance at USC Visions and Voices in March 2022.
CHRIS (ONSTAGE): I was the king of make-believe y’all, the king of fantasy and pretend.
CHRIS: I chose Rubi.
PETER: And I mean, I would go so far as to say, like, the spirit of Rubirosa also chose you.
CHRIS: Not long after Peter’s class… I graduated from CalArts. And then I became what a lot of folks who graduate from an arts conservatory become. A struggling artist with student debt. An actor living in my car… living off food stamps. Desperate to prove I belonged.
That whole time, I thought about Rubi. I wanted to tell his story. Tell MY story.
CHRIS (ONSTAGE): Ooohhh I practiced my wink for a minute—cause a bad wink is—
But a good wink is –
[Audience laughs, cheers.]
CHRIS: The play hasn’t always been as polished as what you’re hearing.
For years it was fragments of writing on my laptop. A scene here. A reflection there. In one version, I wrote the whole thing with me playing Rubi. Nothing about my own life at all. I even had a scene where Rubi talked to a therapist on stage. So yeah…It has been through a lot of revisions.
CHRIS: Do you remember that I invited you to a reading of the first draft in like 2014 at that old apartment. I had on Marathon like above Squirl…
PETER: Oh, yeah, oh yeah.
CHRIS: …and it was a shitty play. And I think you didn't tell me that. But, you know, you probably had much nicer thoughts.
PETER: Well, constructive.
PETER: Instead of saying, “well, this sucks,” it's more like, well, it's in development, you know, because the only way to do it is to read it out loud and see what happens, see what people's responses are.
CHRIS: In the ten years I’ve been working on the show, I’ve done more writes and rewrites than I can count. And that’s because from the start, I have been digging into some of the most uncomfortable questions of my own life. Like: Why am I so afraid of being alone and forgotten? Why did I date so many white women? Where does my self hate come from?
Most of all, what would my life have been like if one of my childhood heroes, James Bond, had looked like me? Shared my nose, my skin, my hair?
Wrestling with these questions meant finding a way to bring my experiences onto the stage.
CHRIS (ONSTAGE): When I was a kid, 9, 10 years old, my grandmother told me to do this to my nose. Grab it between forefinger and thumb, pinch and pull forward. Or she suggested to my father that I sleep with a clothespin pinched to my nose, like they do it back in the campo. Can you imagine what that would feel like?
PETER And obviously, if you keep performing it, that means that it's working. So in your words, it went from being shitty to being performed all over the country.
CHRIS: We've put the play on in theaters from Rochester, to Houston, to Miami, to New York City to LA. And it feels so amazing to do what I love to do. To be achieving that dream that 6 year old me, and 6th grade me, and 18 year old me shared.
But just like Imero told me, I definitely couldn’t have done it alone.
DANIEL BANKS: So here you were bringing me something that was not just the mission of my organization, but really what's become my life mission, which is to create spaces belonging for people like me who don't have access to that many spaces of belonging.
CHRIS: Meet my friend Daniel Banks, co-founder of DNA Works, an arts and service organization dedicated to dialogue and healing through the arts.
CHRIS: What is your role in the play?
DANIEL: I don't know, Chris. What is my role in the play? [laughs] I feel like many roles, but we all have many roles. I mean, even though it's a text based piece, we kind of devised it. So it means everybody who has been in the room with us had a hand in co-creating it. That's how I look at it.
CHRIS: Daniel’s being modest here, so I’ll just tell you – he’s the one who carefully and beautifully shaped my hundreds of pages of writing into what it is. He was the sharp scalpel cutting away what wasn’t needed, helping me focus on the questions and moments from my own life that came alive on stage.
CHRIS: Why did you say yes to developing it? Like when I first brought you Rubi's story, did it strike a chord with you?
DANIEL: I just remember the first time I read the opening of the piece about you in your underwear as a kid, like running out on stage saying, I'm going to be an assassin with all of your toy guns. And that is just like an epic moment. And I just loved the lightness that it began with, you know. And that was going to welcome people in. I think anyone from any background would just immediately lean into this young boy.
CHRIS (ONSTAGE): I legit thought I was Spiderman until I was like 10 years old, mainly because we were both nerds from Queens. But also, I’m a realist and I don’t have lasers coming out of my eyes, or spikes made of metal coming out of my hands…[fades down]
DANIEL: And then you start to talk about your journey as an Afro-Dominican you know, young man in Queens… And those places where the language of identity that we use in this country fails us, those places where we don't have enough role models or leaders who have helped to change the cultural and national imaginary.
CHRIS (ONSTAGE): I took in a deep breath one day, looked to my right and tought, “Oh my God, I don’t think I can date a white woman anymore.”
It’s not their white parents, whose daughters I’ve been dating for 6 months, and they still think I’m from Puerto Rico. Y’all, I ain’t ever been to Puerto Rico.
DANIEL: Every time I have to fill out a census form or any job form or a grant application, something, you have to check off these boxes that are completely you know, don't always work for people like you and me, right? And so. So that's what drew me into it, was yeah, it was personal.
[Bachata music enters.]
CHRIS: It is personal. I mean, the play starts with me in my tighty whities holding a nerf gun. Pretty personal.
But I love that it also feels personal to Daniel. And y'all, that’s where the magic happens. The more I share the play, the more I perform it, the more I realize that the play is not just about Rubi…and it's not just about me. Other people see THEIR lives–or some part of THEIR experience–in this play and in this podcast.
Ya hear that Rubi? Your story...it's part of something magical, something powerful. Your story...it's bringing people together.
—- Ad Break —-
[Brief musical interlude.]
CHRIS: Once, after a performance in New York City, a young Middle Eastern kid came up to me after the show. He was a theater student. He said he always thought he needed epic stories starring heroes that looked like us. But after seeing “The Real James Bond,” he realized what he needed was normal, beautiful Brownness. Just us being us. Then he said, “Thank you for being you.”
At its best, I think art creates disruption. It reveals things to us that we didn’t know we needed to see.
My director, Daniel Banks has a tool that helps this happen.
DANIEL: We turn the lights down on the on the stage and up on the audience
CHRIS: It’s called a story circle. We do them with every performance we can.
CHRIS: I figured it was kind of hard to talk about story circles without bringing you into one. So what you’re hearing right now is the gentle chatter from an actual circle.
CHRIS: We want to know what this play inspired and reminded you and revealed about your own life, or made you question about your own life.
CHRIS: I’m at a venue called CultureHub in New York City. We just finished the play and there’s a small audience who all agreed to be recorded for the podcast. Here we go:
DANIEL: We first break people up into pairs so that they kind of a have a warm up of listening to one another.
CHRIS AT STORY CIRCLE: I'm going to assign you in a and a B, and when a is speaking B will listen – and this isn’t listening in the sense of… [fades down]
[A few seconds of discussion are heard.]
DANIEL: Because while, while an audience doesn't necessarily have difficulty listening to a performer, sometimes they have difficulty listening to a neighbor or a relative or a spouse. You know, these patterns get ingrained.
CHRIS AT STORY CIRCLE: And if we can come together now, it would be amazing if now we could share this with everyone. Like maybe a story you shared with your partner…
DANIEL: And then we asked people to share their own individual stories out and very specifically not to share their partner's story.
CHRIS: Most of the time, Daniel leads the story circles…and I just listen. And it is such a cool feeling to hear the audience members talk about what resonated with them. Or what the play made them think about. It’s like I get to be in the backseat of someone’s car as they drive home from the show and discuss it with their partner.
[Tape fading up of Chris asking for people to share.]
JUDI: For me, it was really personal. I am Dominican-American first generation, from Washington Heights, actually. The Heights. Shout out.
CHRIS: This is a woman named Judi. She’s come to see the show three times.
JUDI: And yeah, like it's hysterical, but always pierces my heart because I see my father. I see my uncle. I think my brother. I see my grandfather. I’ve had, like a lot of complicated, tortured relationships with all these men in my family. And seeing this show has just, like, softened my heart and expanded my compassion because this idea of not being, like having to pretend because there's no place where you can see yourself. And then like, what are you imitating? And at least for my dad and my grandparents growing up in the dictatorship of the Dominican Republic, like they're imitating these like toxic masculine figures.
CHRIS: I’ve seen John Leguizamo’s show “FREAK” at least 15 times because of how much it pierces my heart. How much it speaks to me and shows me my Brown self and my family. When creating the play, I thought a lot about whether to include my own experiences. How critical could I actually be of my parents and grandparents in front of other people? How do I be honest AND make space for empathy for my family? So to hear Judi engaging with all of this, coming back 3 times… It’s powerful, and it’s humbling.
CHRIS: I find it interesting that people who come back just to speak at the story circle, like. Sure. Yeah, I'm sure they're going to see the play again. And that's great. And I appreciate that. But they're definitely coming back because, like, it feels like a space that they can actually say something they've never said out loud.
DANIEL: As the woman in Dallas said, you know, the elder who came back a couple of times to see the show, she stood up and she said, “This is my third time seeing the show and, you know, I really, really liked the show. But I came back for the story circle because I'm learning more about my community and my neighborhood and the people in my city and humanity. Every time I come back I learn more.” Like I think of some of the comments that we had where like one person literally said, “I've never thought about this group of people before or people like this and I can't believe how blind I've been and I want to be a better person.” It was that succinct and it was that direct. I think that's the magic of the piece, is that it takes people on an internal journey as much as it takes them on an external journey.
CHRIS: I love the moments when everyone is like especially with the nose stuff, so many people are constantly like, “Oh yeah, my dad told me to do that to my nose,” or “my mom told me to do that,” “my grandma told me to, you know, pinch my nose.” Like how constant, that is, I remember the woman who said, “I've never said this out loud,” –she came twice, and she only spoke at the second story circle, and she said, “I used to spend hours in the mirror practicing how to smile white. You know, like tucking in my lips, trying to smile white.”
CHRIS: But it’s not just other Afro-Latinos or Dominicans or Latinos who come and talk out loud with their shared experiences. At one performance in Dallas, a 60-something year old white man said that after I performed the scene about pinching my nose with a clothespin, he couldn’t stop thinking about this image and missed the next two scenes altogether. He said that for the first time in his life, he could FEEL what it was like to be someone else, he could FEEL his privilege, not just think about it or read about it, no, he could FEEL it.
DANIEL: I mean, we've had audiences where more than one person has stood up and. Kind of self outed themselves as coming from a family that owned and enslaved workers, enslaved Africans, in the same audience as people who had African heritage, people who had family members killed in racial violence incidents telling those stories.
HIRSH: So I guess I'm one of the few people who are not particularly thrilled by the wave of identity politics that is going on around, you know… [fades under]
CHRIS: Sometimes, though, people push back in the story circle. Like this guy, named Hirsh, a filmmaker in New York. He said he thought the play made it seem like we’re putting too much emphasis on Hollywood as a place to find representation.
HIRSH: There is a lot of media. There is a lot of different kinds of films, theater, music. What we can decide is where to look. Why not see non-mainstream films which are actually representing you or your culture? Why do we ignore them and why do we make a case for, like, you know, big budget films? Which are obviously in a way, they are products? You know, we know that those are products. So why do we have to see a reflection in the products?
CHRIS: I love the point Hirsh is making. And I agree with him. We gotta look for things that speak to us wherever we can. Especially when they don’t exist in the mainstream. We gotta go see art exhibits, indie films. And hey, maybe even show up for a one-man show about a Dominican playboy. We gotta find those little threads where we do feel seen and weave them together until we’ve got something solid and beautiful that can hold us.
DANIEL: What people say in the story circles gives me hope, and that is healing. I think that the hope is healing.
CHRIS: Near the end of my play, there’s a line where I say, “Proudly, in my own Brown skin.” And back when we were rehearsing, that line jumped out to Daniel.
CHRIS: And I said that line and you said, “I just can't hear it, like I can't hear it. Say it again.” And you said, “I can't hear it. I don't know, like, you're saying it, but I don't hear it.” So I say it again. And I said it again. And you said, “You know, you've got to sing it. You've got to sing it like India Arie, like Brown skin.” Like you sang it. And you sing beautifully – just so everyone knows. Do you remember that moment?
DANIEL: Yeah. So like when you think about acting teachers and especially in poetic texts, who will say, like, you have to earn every word. Tina Packer at Shakespeare and Company does this process called “dropping in,” where you literally go through every major word in every single sentence of a play in preparing the play, you have somebody whispering questions and prompts in your ears to make you think differently about that word each time. And you say each word, I don't know, five, 10, depending on who your guide is, 20 times you like until you find that word somewhere in your body and then they move on to the next word in the sentence. And I love that image of dropping in, like that the language has to drop in to you in order to actually resonate for your listener.
[Music fades out.]
CHRIS: “Proudly. In my own. Brown. Skin.” In order for the line to drop into me, I started thinking about “FREAK” and the first time I saw it. I thought about John Leguizamo up on that stage. Being weird. Being Brown. Being himself.
I thought about Imero, about chasing his own dream, about him talking to me like, of course I could be an actor. All I had to do was go for it.
I thought about Peter sending me that Rubi article — how he saw a bit of me in the image of this man who dazzled the world.
I thought about the dark and beautiful history of the Dominican Republic, the history of my ancestors in the DR, the story of my mom and pops on a subway platform in New York City deciding to turn nothing into something. The 8 year old kid trying to be Bond. All of this – and all of these people – were moving around in that one line.
CHRIS (ONSTAGE): No more pretending. Right, Rubi? And proudly, in my own Brown skin, I’ll make sure the dedication reads, “In loving memory of Porfirio Rubirosa, a brave, loving, foolish, tortured, Brown-skinned man who was desperate to be seen.”
DANIEL: I have one more question for you. So, what have you learned about yourself? In this process, doing the show. That you don't talk about in the show.
CHRIS: I think we do talk about it, but it would take up a whole play, you know, is, I'm still understanding, I'm still coming to understand how much this is like my whole life, my relationship between loneliness and being seen. Which is why I think Rubi was so. Sad at times and so lonely. He needed to be seen so much like he made no room to be alone.
[Sentimental music enters.]
CHRIS: I'm still, I'm still thinking and still learning what is it about being seen – and every human wants to be seen, I think. We want to be recognized for who we are, right? “Proudly in my own Brown skin.” And we want to not have to prove it to people and I know I still have a chip on my shoulder. Like, I know I still have so much to prove. To who, though I'm like, who am I doing it for? Like, who's out there like, “Fuck Chris. He's not going to make it.” I'm still answering that but I've come closer to it.
CHRIS: Y’all… this journey, this story, is not over. And I wanna know what YOU think. You—listening to this right now. We’re gonna turn this podcast into a kind of story circle. So please send me your thoughts, your questions, your reflections — you can email email@example.com with voice memos, written notes, anything you want to share. One and everything, bring it all. Or find me on social at christopher__rivas. I can’t wait to hear i.
We’ve only got two episodes of this podcast left. Next time, we’re gonna hear about Rubi’s death — and what still haunts me about it.
CHRIS: He was such a chosen and deliberate man, that there’s a real good chance it wasn’t an accident that night with that car.
TAKI: I wouldn't put it past him, but we’ll never know.
CHRIS: And then we’ll go to the one place that in alllllll my years of researching and learning I haven’t been to — the one place that maybe has some answers for me —
PILOT: …pasajeros, bievenidos a Santo Domingo….
CHRIS: Stick around.