A Closer Look: Julio Down by the Schoolyard
J. Julian Christopher's new play Julio Down by the Schoolyard follows the community members of Jackson Heights, Queens, as they are taken on a journey of self-discovery by a fabulously unapologetic queen on the morning after the brutal murder of Julio Rivera, a gay Puerto Rican man. The murder, which took place in 1990, would go on to become the first gay hate crime tried in New York State. While J. Julian wrote the first draft of the play during a session of The Lark's Winter Writers' Retreat, the genesis really began long before that workshop. To give audiences a closer look at the inspirations behind this sweeping new play, J. Julian got together with Keelay Gipson, a fellow Winter Writers' Retreat playwright, to talk about the various influences and ideas that went into telling this story. Check out what they had to say below, and join us June 3-4 at The Lark for a Studio Retreat reading of Julio Down by the Schoolyard. RSVP!
The conversation below is an edited excerpt. Listen to audio for the full interview!
J. JULIAN CHRISTOPHER: I’ve been living with this play for a long time. Since we did the Winter Retreat I’ve been workshopping it at INTAR’s Unit 52.
KEELAY GIPSON: And then you just had a reading in Queens.
JJC: Yes, at Queensborough Community College. I also got a grant to write the play, which was through the LaGuardia LGBT Archives. And then part of the grant was a public reading in Queens, so we did it at the Holocaust Center at Queensborough Community, and Daniel Dromm came, the councilman for Jackson Heights and Elmhurst, who was friends with Julio, and actually started the vigil with the bar owner of Friend’s, Eddie Valentin. They both came to see the reading, and they were there for the vigil, which is what prompted the Queens Pride Parade. So that was quite special.
KG: I love this play so much, because I’m really a fan of the gay fantasia and using these seemingly random elements to tell the story of place or people. Because I feel like we’re sojourners, gay folks. We’re constantly either leaving our homes because of persecution, and finding families, like my family in the city is a found family—
JJC: Yea, me too.
KG: Yea, so it feels like this is a family drama. But told through your lens and only as you can tell it.
KG: Cool. Okay I’m gonna go into the questions!
JJC: Let’s do it! Let’s go for it.
KG: Okay, so. What queer writers do you look up to?
JJC: I mean there’s so many. Doric Wilson, just being one of the pioneers. Andrew Kramer writes some of the most progressive, queer work. I absolutely adore his work. I mean, *laughs* I don’t know a lot of your work but recently I’ve been into it and now I’m into your work. Terrence McNally was a huge influence on me as well.
And frankly, I have to say, a lot of queerness that I’m influenced by is less about playwrights and more about specific artists. A lot of choreographers. José Limón, Merce Cunningham. I was always super interested in dance which I think is why all my plays involve lots of movement. Also drag performers are really important to me. Cause, I mean, all this bullshit with the Met Gala, and camp, and not really understanding the meaning of camp. And not to say that I know a lot about camp, I mean I used to be a drag queen, so I think lots of elements of Julio are camp, and I was really inspired in one of the scenes by Lypsinka, and by a lot of the queens that I used to know, working as a queen in the late ‘90s. Mirkala Crystal, who people don’t necessarily know, but, if you were in Jackson Heights you’d know Mirkala Crysal. People like that.
KG: Generally speaking, what inspires you to write?
JJC: I just have something to say. And I don’t have any other way to say it. I know a lot of people use social media to say it. I am not that person. And it’s so interesting because a lot of people say my work is political, and I don’t think it is. I think it’s sometimes the backdrop of it, but what inspires me is injustice, and seeing how people are commodifying queer bodies now. They used to just hate queer bodies, and now it’s commercial. Starbucks just released their rainbow tumbler, coffee, love is love bullshit. And it’s so obnoxious to me, but when it gets down to it—
KG: There are still transwomen being killed all over the country.
JJC: Every day.
KG: What comes first when you write a play?
JJC: The title. I always have a title first. Man Boobs was always Man Boobs, before I even started writing that. Animals Commit Suicide was Animals Commit Suicide. I just always have a title, I don’t know why.
KG: And what do you think working from that way, title ground up, what do you think that illuminates in your process?
JJC: I guess for me, a title is so important because a title almost feels like a really concise elevator pitch. Like this new play I’m going to be working on, Ronald Reagan Murdered my Mentors, that’s the thesis of the play. I feel like the title is just a quick synopsis of the mood.
KG: Yea, for me title is all about mood. What do you want it to evoke when people hear that title. I love that.
So, why explore this time in queer history, and what do you hope to illuminate by looking back? And I know you said this was part of a grant. Was the grant specific to writing about Queens?
JJC: It was specifically about Queens pride, and Queens LGBTQ+ history. What’s interesting is that I think most plays that have been written about queerness, or most plays that have gotten attention on a national level, have been about white gay men, and I feel like there was a complete disconnect in queer people of color, who face completely different challenges. And what was so interesting about, when you look back at the time in 1990 when Julio Rivera was murdered, actually the people who started the revolution for it ended up being white people. And it’s because the community was so closeted, especially in Latino culture and – I have a problem with Latinx, which I know is a very controversial topic and I talk about it in Julio a little bit, but, I will say Latino or Latine. Just because I feel like Latinx colonizes a language, because you can’t really pronounce it in Spanish. So I understand its inclusion but I feel like there’s a Spanish way to do that, if you just put Latine with an e at the end, it still works in neutralizing gender – but anyway. I think that, it’s just been glossed over. And I think that Julio’s murder could have been anybody in that community, and it was people, it has been people in that community, years before that, it just got to point that it was, like, no, this is enough.
The play really deals with how people deal with grief. It’s really less about the politics. How the community reacts to the grief of one of their members, who was known within the LGBT community, which was still closeted back then. Even though there was Friend’s Tavern and Magic Touch Bar, and there were actual gay bars there, they were able to see themselves for the first time in the newspaper. Even though they tried to ruin him by saying it was a drug deal, they were trying to demonize him, it was still put in the paper. Julio Rivera, Gay Puerto Rican man. And it was like, oh, we care. It’s in the newspaper so someone actually cares that a gay person of color died.
KG: And it’s not of AIDS
JJC: And it’s not of AIDS. Yea. So we actually care. Exactly. I think that’s “why now.” Because I also feel like there’s an attack on queer people of color going on now.
KG: It’s sneakier.
JJC: It’s stealth mode. Yea, absolutely.
KG: I was talking to a friend recently about how the kitchen sink play is no longer in vogue in theater and we’ve become much more experimental and nuanced as a culture, so I think it’s reflected in the art that’s being created these days, but, as experimental as this play is, it feels like a slice of life play, or rather a slice of life as it relates to a specific place. So what about Jackson Heights is at the heart of this play?
JJC: That’s a hard question. Because I think that also the kitchen sink play is still valid. But I think the reason we’re seeing more experimental theater, especially in queer theater, is because our narratives are not the straight path that everyone else has to take. So many queer people come out later in life, so they don’t get to take the person they want to the prom, so they do that later. There’s almost a bit of stunted growing. We have to navigate a different world, so I think that lends itself to experimental theater.
And what about Jackson Heights? I think Jackson Heights is interesting because of community pressure, especially in Latin culture, of this idea of gender roles, and being machismo and marianismo. We feel boxed in, in Latin culture. My dad is an immigrant from the Dominican Republic, and my mom is from Puerto Rico, and they came here when they were young, so that was instilled in me when I was young. You have to be a certain type.
KG: You have a character, J. Heights, who is the embodiment of the whole neighborhood. I love how fabulous she is. When I write I always have a character that is a stand-in for my point of view, and sometimes that character is thinly veiled and sometimes they’re an overt declaration of who I am and how I think. With that in mind, is J. Heights that for you?
JJC: This play is so different for me because I usually don’t have, at least I don’t feel like my work has ever had a mouthpiece. In a way, I feel like Jackson Heights can be. There are lots of things that J. Heights says that are definitely my point of view. I wrote this play when I was really angry. I was just very angry at this past election, this upcoming election, the way women and candidates of color are being dismissed. So that’s where this play was sort of born.
J. Heights was also based on Miss Columbia. If you’re in Queens you’ve seen her, she’s at every cabaret, she’s in every pride parade in Queens, in Manhattan, just everywhere. And strangely enough a few days before I wrote the play she was found dead at Jacob Riis beach. They still haven’t figured out if it was foul play or not. But she, to me, is the embodiment of every culture. She wore every piece of material she could, she had a green pink beard, a parrot on her head. She just felt like the spirit of all these clashes of culture and this unapologetic queerness that I wanted to embody. So, J. Heights is an amalgamation of my anger about our current political state involving queerness, and sort of a memorial to Miss Columbia.
KG: I love that. Beautiful. Okay, I saw this on your Facebook, that we just lost the HIV and AIDS activist Andy Vélez recently. This play feels like a requiem of sorts, like you said, for Miss Columbia, for Julio, for a neighborhood rapidly changing, for a part of gay life that no longer exists, or that has shifted with the times. Can you talk about where this play lives and comes from?
JJC: I wanted to write something that was a contemporary spin on a past event. The play moves in and out of 1990 and today. And it’s also a memorial to my Uncle Tito, who lived in East Elmhurst, and I’m sure was at all these bars. I didn’t know because he died in 1990 of AIDS.
He was a hairdresser and he had a hairdresser shop, I believe it was on the border of Elmhurst and Jackson Heights. He probably knew Julio, because the community was small. And part of me, I was twelve or thirteen, I knew. Even at that age, I knew. Uncle Allyn was an interior designer, and Uncle Tito was a hairdresser, and they had a house they owned on Water Island, in between the Pines and Cherry Grove. I used to be at Fire Island every summer from the time I was one to twelve. There’s a picture of Isabella Rossellini holding me because she had the house next to them on this private island. So, I have all these memories of Fire Island but, it’s interesting because, it was a private beach in between these gay worlds, and my uncle and his partner at the time, they probably had these amazing gay parties, at this oceanfront house, and then there would be a weekend that was just family! And I remember thinking, why is there only one bed? So, I was processing all of this stuff and not realizing that I was.
I always had an immediate connection to Uncle Tito and he always had an immediate connection to me. I remember my dad always saying that Uncle Tito was always saying, “oh he’s the special one.” But I wasn’t able to have a relationship with him as an adult gay man. And this play is sort of tackling the fact that I never resolved that. And my next play, Ronald Reagan Murdered my Mentors, is also going to wrestle with that, so it’s like those two plays are in conversation with each other. It’s really a memorial to my uncle in many ways. J. Heights is actually written in his voice. And, I have at the very beginning, at Friend’s Tavern, you hear Lisa Stansfield’s “Around the World,” which was his favorite song.
KG: Girl. What do you think the next generation of queer playwrights gains from looking to our history for inspiration?
JJC: I hope they look to our history. I’m afraid some don’t. Sometimes I hear, you know being a professor at Queensborough, I hear some of my gay, queer students not know who some people are, and it really bothers me. I think we have to keep it alive. Because I feel like society wants to erase our history.
KG: They want to take from it but not honor it.
JJC: Right and that’s true of any minority. You see that with the Black community, with the Latino community, we see that in music, pop culture. And that for me is the ultimate appropriation. Because appropriation and inspiration are very different. Appropriation is erasure of the origin. And I feel like that’s what’s happening to our Queer history. And again, our history was erased because Ronald Reagan didn’t act, and all of these people, an entire generation was lost, including my uncle, that had our history, an oral history that could have been documented, and they were wiped out. That’s why it’s so important to me to keep the history alive. I feel a responsibility. I know it’s not my responsibility, but I do feel a responsibility, if I have this platform as a playwright that can get work out there, to do it.
Which is why it was so important to do it at Queensborough Community College, and give a speech right before the reading, at this school that I teach at, and say that I am a proud, queer professor here at Queensborough Community. Be completely explicit, unapologetically queer, and not fear for my job. As an untenured professor. The president of the college was there and shook my hand after. And that’s great, but I’m also not stupid enough to not know that, that doesn’t happen if I didn’t live in New York City. If I lived in the Midwest someone would lose their job if they did that. That’s why I make my plays available on New Play Exchange, so that some kid in the Midwest looking for queer playwrights, they can hashtag and find it and read my play, if they’re not here in the city.
KG: This is a love letter to queer spaces of New York City specifically, hidden and in plain sight. What are some of your favorite queer places?
JJC: Oh my god, so many of them have left. Friend’s Tavern is one, in Jackson Heights, which is why I included it, it’s a place I feel really comfortable. There used to be a coffee house when I first moved to New York called The Big Cup, which was super queer. Also, the best queer spaces for me are the queer family’s apartments that I go to.
KG: How do you come up with your scene titles and what is the impetus behind some of your favorites?
JJC: Yea! Well, “A Laugh Riot” is one of the scene titles, and the entire scene is the transcript from the Reagan press briefings. That will be a lip sync between J. Heights and Magical POC Queen, with a bachata beat underneath it. So it’s gonna be this crazy drag number but also, kind of a fucked up number because in the press briefing, Reagan’s press secretary is just laughing about AIDS, and calling gay people fairies. So, to me, that’s Met Gala Camp. That’s camp. It’s taking something and subverting it.
KG: Do you have any desire to have them projected? Make it full Brechtian? Cause I have scene titles too in my plays and I don’t think that they’ll ever be projected but it’s just fun for the reader.
JJC: Totally, for me the scene titles are just for the director, literary managers, whoever’s reading it, the kid in the Midwest, to understand the tone of what they’re about to read. The scene titles for me are just there to dictate tone. But it’d be interesting, I don’t know, maybe the company shouts it before it starts, I’m open to a lot.
KG: Your work is so entrenched in queer tradition, drag culture, ball culture, club culture, cruising, go go boys, etcetera. How do you hope your work relates to folks who are not queer? And do you think it matters?
JJC: No. I don’t care. *Laughs* Sorry straight people. I don’t care. And to me that’s the heart of the play. The heart of the play is, this isn’t… Okay. Let me put it in a certain way. Because, I feel that sometimes a lot of people say this, and they don’t actually mean it. And I don’t know if I actually mean it. Sometimes I hear playwrights say, “this is not for you”, and I’m like, I don’t know if that’s true because if MTC wants to produce it, it’s for them too. It just wasn’t written to be safe for people who are not in the community. And I think sometimes people are safe when they write, to not offend. So, my intention is not to make straight people feel left out of the conversation, but I actually do believe that the more specific you are, it actually makes it, and I’m going to use this word, although I hate this word, universal.
I hate the word universal because it’s like, I’ve been told all the time, like when I wrote Man Boobs which is about gay men of size enjoying sex and not being the butt of a joke because they’re overweight, it was kind of radical. The audience didn’t know how to deal with it. It was like, “oh, we’re not supposed to laugh at these people having sex.” They didn’t know what to do with it. But then I had people come up to me, like straight women come up to me, and “oh this is so universal, I know exactly how you,” and you don’t. Sorry.
And I just feel like queer people have had to translate, for their entire lives, straight narratives into their life. I had to watch West Side Story and I had to see Tony and Maria’s relationship and I had to translate what that meant for me as a queer person, because of the straight narrative. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with straight people having to translate queer relationships. If they have to navigate cruising in a park, then navigate that shit. Cause you probably have done that on some level in a different way. I just don’t care about isolating anybody because I don’t think the work does. If you feel isolated from the work then I think that’s on you.
KG: Cool. So. Last question.
KG: State of American Theater go.
JJC:*Laughs* I mean I think it’s having a boom. I think people now are really searching for community, because it feels like the country doesn’t have one. And there’s no community in watching Netflix. But there is community in watching theater, because we’re with other people, and you’re feeding off that energy, and it actually changes your experience. I don’t think theater will ever die. I don’t think it can. I think it goes up and down. But I do think that…
KG: We’re on a peak.
JJC: We’re on a peak but, I think, there’s still equity to be had in what’s being produced. Gender. Race. All of it.