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Playwrights’ Corner

DESARROLLO by Juliany Taveras will be featured in a public, workshop reading at The Lark on November 6th as part of Playwrights’ Week 2018. DESARROLLO is an unraveling—a discovery—of what happens to the people and places we love when put under pressure; like film developing in the dark, their stories are ones of transformation, of capturing moments that change us. Juliany sat down with fellow Playwrights’ Week participant Erin Buckley to talk about the themes of time and identity and how the play was inspired by their home — New York City.

ERIN BUCKLEY: Your play is so beautiful. I’m so excited to get to see DESARROLLO on its feet in Playwrights’ Week! First of all, I love your title so much, and it got me thinking about all the types of developing that are happening in the play. I was thinking a lot about time. And about people growing up. And about photography. And I loved this text of Young Alaida’s:

I wanna take pictures of our city. of how it looks now.
before it changes even more and before more time passes
and before they start making more movies about it
where they make everything look all wrong
           she pauses again.
isn’t it kind of nuts?
that one day this will probably be an ancient civilization, too,
just another subchapter in a textbook?

That whole notion of NOW as what will one day be the past is so striking. Can you talk about time in your play? And what photography does for the characters to capture moments in time?

Even in my everyday life, I’m a little obsessed with the strangeness of “time” and talking about how it works—not that I understand the physics of it at all, but I love loudly ideating and gesticulating about how “time is a lake!” or why humans experience it in a linear way (if this is even always true). I think one of the biggest things that drew me to theater and playwriting was their magical capacity for exploring these concepts, and so much of what (or rather, how) I write leans into this interest. Desarrollo is no exception; the title indeed alludes to multiple meanings of “development,” including one of unraveling, and as such the play takes on a sort of spiraling shape. Time provides a structure, a lens through which to understand the story’s developments. I tend to imagine time and place to be characters in their own right, faceless narrators that guide us through tales of change, disruption, and growth. Similarly, photography, in freezing singular moments of time, can be used to string together images whose striking similarities and differences tell their own story/ies. For the character Alaida specifically, it becomes the way that she sees and processes the world around her. And though she may wish for it to help her keep things from changing, it in fact just allows her to document (and mourn) those changes even more vividly.

EB: As I was reading your play, I was also thinking a lot about what a true depiction of New York you give. Each scene feels like a vignette that captures some true part of being a New Yorker: taking the F train and getting stuck en route to Coney Island, the sound of the laundromat, blackouts in the city. Just stuff that all New Yorkers have experienced — and if you’ve experienced those things, you remember them so specifically. Like, I remember how dark it was in the city during that blackout you mention in 2003 because there were no street lights — just occasional car lights — but while you’re exploring this city incredibly specifically, Nelly is also pondering how often Earth is almost hit by a meteor. I loved the contrast in the specificity of the moments of life in New York with this real overwhelming awareness of the unknown. I’d love you to speak to that juxtaposition.

I really appreciate this perspective and observation! One of the most valuable functions and formal qualities of writing, in my experience, is the creation of a visceral bond between the extremely particular and the vastly universal. It’s like a wormhole—we get sucked in and transported, the specific details of one world suddenly opening up entire portals to other ideas, places, fears, connections. Nelly especially is someone who is keenly aware of other worlds beyond her own—of the multitude of existences and experiences to be had just outside the borders of what one knows. Desarrollo is a matrix, full of layers and intersections, but at its core it is, unshakably, a New York City story. I wrote it for this place, for these people. But I hope that all the tiny details—the very things that make it so unique to my city—might be potential “wormholes” for folks, portals through which to better understand, or somehow see anew, their own lives. Because I think if we can do that, we can better understand lives outside our own, as well. We can freeze moments in time. Spiral between and across them. See the world through a different lens. We can connect.

EB: I was struck by the doubling in your play. I love that Jana and Jonah are to be played by the same actor while Alaida, Nelly, and Sol are played by two actors each. Can you tell me more about how you were thinking about dividing selves and combining selves in the bodies of actors?

Yes! I don’t know about you, but I am well aware that despite my singular mortal shell, I carry and create a multitude of selves each and every day. The way I see it, we’re walking kaleidoscopes of all the people we have been, are, and will be. It felt important to me, when writing Desarrollo, that the characters who we see as both preteens and young adults in their 20s get to share the stage—that both versions of themselves get to be whole beings, and to interact with one another across time. So for them (and then for us), it's a means of looking inward by actually looking outward—we externalize parts of ourselves and confront them face to face. The characters Jana and Jonah, meanwhile, function a little differently; they’re two very distinct people, but in a way they serve a similar purpose in the lives of Alaida and Sol.  In this way I got to explore not just this dividing/combining of selves that you mention, but also dualities and spectrums of gender, relationship, memory, and self-image.

EB: I was so moved by what Sol says about boyhood here:

people now don't realize this,
that i loved being boy,
long-haired and grinning, soft-skinned galaxy;
i loved my glow,
my sunspots, my hand warm in my aunt’s safe grip.
but one day they told me i had to
to bare my teeth and raise my fists

and i said no.

because i have always been
so much more
than the absence of light.

I just thought that was so surprising and expressive. And Sol later says that “growing up is a trap.” I wondered if you could speak more about that?

Oof, I could talk about Sol all day. This is a character that helped me so much throughout the writing process—they’re a cosmic powerhouse, a pulsating heart in the world of Desarrollo. And when it comes to the trio of friends in this play, they bring a joy and confidence and unapologetic skepticism that is vital to the group’s geometry. Sol is a mover, a dancer, a dreamer, and their journey is one of radiant self-love and self-definition. From an early age, Sol rejects the notion that there’s only one way to be—one way to live, or age, or dress, or love. They are bold and brave and refuse to fall into lines drawn by anyone else. So much of Sol is inspired by the beauty and resilience that I see in my queer/of color/immigrant/NYC communities. But their glittering strength shouldn’t be mistaken for some superhuman capacity for pain or magic—Sol’s joy comes from a very real struggle with pain, and despite their frequent role as mediator and visionary, they definitely have their own things to unravel and make peace with.

EB: And finally, can you tell me about how you began to write the play? I always think it’s so interesting to know where plays begin.

Oh, this one’s easy—it all started with a bodega, a laundromat, and a hair salon. When I started writing this play, I had no idea where it was going, but I know that’s where it began: these three storefronts that to me were so indicative of the city I call home. I grew up running down the aisles of my dad’s deli in the Bronx, and when I moved back to Brooklyn after my college years in upstate New York, the brightly colored awnings of these particular small businesses are what most felt like home. A neighborhood that still had these staple shops was one that still had community, history, vibrancy. A bodega, laundromat, and hair salon on my block meant gentrification hadn’t yet swallowed everything—although even as a Brooklyn-born New Yorker, when I signed my first lease, I had to start reflecting on my own relation to/role in the massive displacement happening across the borough. This personal crisis provided me with questions, and these three common yet deeply intimate places provided me with characters through which to explore those questions. And once these characters came to life—well, there was no stopping what they had to say.