Milagro presents the world premiere of a promising new play.
Somewhere in Los Angeles, two male teenagers nearing eighteen years old are taking refuge in a shelter for LGBT youth. Angelo is a privileged Puerto Rican and aspiring poet; Mila is a calloused Mexican-African street punk. This is the premise of Swimming While Drowning, a new production at Milagro Theatre, written by Emilio Rodriguez.
Attending the opening night on Friday, I was among Milagro’s best fans and supporters. In addition to a standing ovation at the end of the show, the audience laughed gleefully at the many jokes peppered into what is essentially a drama. The story is serious, but the dialogue is lighthearted, as innocent as the youth depicted on stage.
Angelo, played by Michel Castillo, on his first day to the shelter meets roommate Mila (Blake Stone). Their different backgrounds show a disparity in class perspective while exploring what coming out as a homosexual while living at home can be like. I could sense the furrowing of brows, I could hear grunts of thought provoked by the situation.
In the intimate confines of a private dormitory room — where the entire play is set — the interaction between these two characters alone guides the story. They don’t sit with smart phones and headphones for an hour and a half, as we would come to expect from a play about teenagers in their rooms. Rather, they engage one another. Angelo is by far the agent of outreach, demanding attention at all times, but he also demands of Mila the self-attention Mila deserves. He sees through the street punk persona and finds a soft, caring family man in development. Not that Mila is inauthentic in who he is, indeed, that may be the lesson Angelo takes from their friendship.
Angelo is a nerdy but cool, highly literate kid that speaks fluent Spanish although he “looks white,” whereas Mila “looks brown” but speaks only English, and not particularly well either. Mila’s reluctance to get to know Angelo reveals that soft spot as they get closer, showing that he desires softer experiences while at once pursuing a dangerous lifestyle in the streets.
Gradual revelations are crucial to the enjoyment of the storyline. The story brings all the goods you might want from a drama, including sex and violence, but in a careful and deliberate manner that forces us to consider how we look at our youth.
The program literature cites The National Coalition for the Homeless that 42% of homeless youth identify as LGBT, in part because more than a quarter of teens who come out are told to leave home. Once on the street, they can fall prey to sex industries, and all the rest of it. This play gives a glimpse into that world with a compassionate lens.
The characters also provide the function of narrator as their poems interweave every act and scene. We, in a sense, are transported into the future and become the audience of a poetry reading; Poetic language doesn’t tell the story, it only offers an impression. Sometimes you read a poem and wonder what was behind it. This play gives you both.
Running through February 25th, Swimming While Drowning can be seen at Milagro Theatre. For complete details go to milagro.org.