Boundary Breaking

Victor I. Cazares on Queering Theater, One Retro Video Game at a Time

· Updated on September 29, 2022

“Linear storytelling is genocide,” Victor I. Cazares declares over cups of Prosecco in the dressing room of New York Theatre Workshop (NYTW). Between sips, they explain it’s because linearity insists that: “we are all between just one point and another” and erases anyone who complicates state-sanctioned narratives.

In another world, it would be impossible for Cazares to exist because they are a walking swag-bag of complications: a “Mexican Mexican-American, nonbinary, sex-positive, queer person living with HIV” who writes plays that bounce across numerous timelines while fleshing out the hidden truths buried within any moment.

Their latest work, the heartbreaking american (tele)visions — a multimedia ode to millennials who came of age at the onset of the internet and video game culture — opens this week at New York Theatre Workshop.

Related: Angelica Ross on Her Broadway Debut, Tech Passion, and Reclaiming Musicals

The play tells the story of a nuclear, undocumented Mexican family who immigrates to Texas for greater opportunities but finds themselves locked outside America’s dream. Rather than follow Langston Hughes’ progression of a dream deferred, Cazares reveals how those collective yearnings mutate and take on a life of their own, especially when lived by young queer kids who refuse to accept the limitations of their elders.

american (tele)visions
(l to r) Raúl Castillo, Clew, Bianca “b” Norwood and Elia Monte-Brown in american (tele)visions. Photo by Joan Marcus.

For people of Cazares’ generation, it is one of the first times they have been allowed to see themselves in their unabashedly peculiar glory onstage. This goes beyond the trend established by Black and Brown theater artists, such as Robert O’Hara, Jackie Sibblies Dury, Erika Dickerson-Despenza, Julian Jiménez, and Michael R. Jackson, who are celebrated for “breaking boundaries” by telling oft-ignored stories or penning their own coming-of-rage tales.

Related: Unapologetically big, Black and beautiful, ‘A Strange Loop’ has changed the face of Broadway

Cazares skews left of those narratives by illustrating the pungent gawkiness that accompanies being a stranger in a land stolen from your ancestors, as you grasp for, turn away from, and choke on the “American Dream.”

Like many kids of the 80s and 90s, Cazares’ characters aren’t trying to fit into oppressive power structures. They’re demolishing the framework of “normalcy” and building imaginary worlds that allow them to feel worthy ― because they realize that this world isn’t good enough.

“I was not prepared for my play to be an early formative experience for audiences.” — Victor I. Cazares

When asked how they feel about showing audiences who are unaccustomed to seeing themselves or these stories, Cazares responds, “this process has been one of the greatest joys!”

“I was not prepared for my play to be an early formative experience for audiences. We’ve had students say, “Oh my God. I didn’t know you could do this in theatre.” That’s what happened to me; I saw something that wrecked my mind and I know how vital it is.” Some of these students have come through as part of NYTW’s educational efforts to empower future generations of theatergoers, while others have been brought by their parents.

By framing american (tele)visions through an undocumented immigrant family, Cazares reminds audiences that their lives are just as deserving as any other and plants an iconoclastic seed: “The whole thing breaks every theatrical rule that you think you have. In fact, you don’t actually have these rules,” Cazares says. “I don’t have them; you don’t have them; nobody has these rules. These rules do not actually exist.”

 

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By breaking the rules, Cazares means chopping up linear storytelling and turning it on its crotch, allowing each character to have their own fully realized journey, giving nonbinary actors and characters full reign, and showing that queerness is more than convenient “yassness” ― in american tele(visions) it’s a transgressive force that breaks through life’s mundanity.

Calling the play “magical” feels regressive, and yet the transformative journey that it allows audiences to tap into is nothing short of spiritually revolutionary.

Cazares chatted with INTO prior to the play’s opening about their allegiance to f*cking up narratives, childhood influences, and the refusal to cave into shame.

I am obsessed with the character of the mother, Maria Jimena (Elia Monte-Brown). I feel like it’s because I’m gay and have been told that something awful would happen to me if I ever gave in to my desires. But she does, and sh*t happens, and still keeps going.

At no point does she regret or apologize for what she wants. Even if she dies, right? She’s like, “No. I died going after what I want.” And what she wanted was sleep. Here’s a mother, and she just wants out. And even in that wanting, she carries everything with her and doesn’t regret it. The only thing she questions is, “Why did you bring us here? Why did we leave if we were going to keep wanting?”

american (tele)visions
Elia Monte-Brown (top) and Bianca “b” Norwood in american (tele)visions. Photo by Joan Marcus.

And not just wanting but also losing her only son after projecting what she expected of him. How much of that is commentary versus biography?

Well, I’m still alive. But the biographical elements are: I understand what life inside of a mobile home is; I understand what it’s like to not have enough money to pay for the things you need or to only have money for the things you need; and that you’ll need again and again.

I know what it’s like to be queer in the early 90s and in the early 2000s, experiencing rejection. I think that’s part of the play, too, at least in my case. Even when my parents did not react well, I have known for several years that they never stopped loving me. They just couldn’t understand — not my sexuality, but that I chose to express it. It’s like it was supposed to be this secret.

Like, “It’s okay that you’re this way. Just marry a woman, have a kid, and never talk about it.”

Yeah.

The gift of Maria Jimena for me as a queer person is that she refuses to bury herself and stops trying to hold things together after she realizes that she will suffocate. Being a kid of the 90s, seeing the play’s many projections made me think of being in The Matrix. Are there any religious influences embedded within the play?

That’s another autobiographical thing. I grew up 7th Day Adventist, believing that Jesus was gonna come imminently and the world was going to end. When you’re a child, you just absorb all these apocalyptic images. And we’d have these seminars that centered on the apocalypse and were like sweeps week for TV across multiple Sundays. And you could tell that it was going to be a good sermon if the projector was preset. The pictures of heaven were never interesting, but the pictures of the apocalypse!

american (tele)visions
(l to r) Clew and Raúl Castillo in american (tele)visions. Photo by Joan Marcus.

I love that what you took away from church was seeing projected images of the apocalypse. Especially because so much of being gay and surrounded by Christianity is being told you’re going to hell. Do you worry that you’re divulging too much about yourself in the play?

It’s funny; I don’t think I’m revealing anything that anybody else has not experienced. How I write is sort of like an emotional score, and then I use narrative to complete it. What I think I’m revealing are emotions and memories that people already have — that audiences have for themselves.

Has seeing the show taught you anything about yourself?

During a preview, after [one of] the reveals, I just sat there thinking, “Oh wow. I really am strange.” I suppose it’s my aesthetic. I’m exposing this strangely shaped dramaturgy where we see fights, memories, sex, tapes and technologies that we don’t remember how to use. Even if we’ve experienced them, I think we’ve forgotten how to use them. And remembering that we’re not the first people to whom that happens. Think of technological progress; at some point, the gas lamp was the most advanced form of lighting, and now we’ve forgotten how to use it.

“How I write is sort of like an emotional score, and then I use narrative to complete it.”

I grew up in the outskirts of El Paso, which means I grew up basically in a shanty town without building codes or services. There was no sewage or water connection from the city. Some places had to have water delivered. Getting to the city of El Paso from our mobile home and seeing modern homes felt like a type of time travel. It was like a temporal shift. And then going to my mom’s town in Mexico was an even bigger shift, right?

So I went from the 70s (in my community) to the 90s in El Paso, and then back to 1880 in the adobe house that my grandfather built, where my mother grew up in the shadow of the hacienda of the people that owned our family. It wasn’t until 1913 that my great-grandfather got freed. So I grew up with shifting temporalities.

“The act of writing is not to make things easier. The reason to write things down is not to simplify things. It’s to find something. To create something from which something else can launch.” — Victor I. Cazares

american (tele)visions
(l to r) Ryan J. Haddad and Bianca “b” Norwood in american (tele)visions. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Your life is like its own version of the theory of relativity, except in place of light perception, you’ve experienced it through progress that hasn’t yet reached a certain destination.

Or living a history that hasn’t been told. It’s both of those things. Because if no one’s telling that story, you’re experiencing it in a vacuum in some way. By the time I was a kid, nobody was telling the story of killing the overseer.

In the play, that makes me think of the emotional ramifications for people who feel as if they are going towards what is supposed to be progress. Actually, they just enter another version —

— of the same system they fled. And I don’t think the family could have made another choice.

Yes, going back to Maria Jimena, or any queer or trans person who has suffered because they dare to live their life — even if I knew a car crash was coming, I’d still get into that car.

We are in that car. Climate change.

Spoiler alert.

It happens in the first five minutes.

Yes, you find out about it, but once we get there and live through it in the projections, my heart actually stopped. It shouldn’t have shocked me, but it still hurt.

Nobody’s life has a congruence. You’ve already made a bargain, so even if you can see yourself being punished for something, when it finally happens, what you connect it to will be, “This is the thing [I’m getting punished for]? This is why?”

Like when I did something really horrible years ago, but the next time something bad happened to me, I blamed it on stepping on an ant. Talk to me about video game projections in the show. Actually, did you lose yourself in video games as a kid?

Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Oh, my God! Video games were not queer in the same way that we understand them now. For a long time, people thought video games were not part of queer culture. But we’re only now coming into these spaces of having some sort of legibility, maybe.

Related: 5 Video Games with Not-So-Subtle Queer Representation

I think a lot of people who were creating those video games could not have created a queer character or had a queer narrative openly. And yet they were queer.

That’s why Super Mario Bros. 2 is foundational to my existence. I mean, Birdo is totally trans.

Absolutely. And after that we had Street Fighter and Super Smash Brothers, where you could play different genders. I loved Sheik because I could be Princess Zelda disguised as a bad*ss Arabic ninja.

I was [Princess] Peach. When you choose a character, it’s a way to both hide behind but also affirms it. And I think that’s what american (tele)visions is: [it’s] the places we hide the things that affirm us.

Can you imagine growing up in a society where your parents are invested in who you’re playing on Super Smash Brothers?

I can because of your play. Which is why it makes me cry; for showing me what it meant to hide and what it might have meant if I hadn’t had to.

It’s so exciting to have made something that people respond to because they’ve also analyzed videos. And experienced them as a way of escape but also as identity formation. Because when we escape from our realities is when we’re forming identities. 

american (tele)visions
(l to r) Clew and Bianca “b” Norwood in american (tele)visions. Photo by Joan Marcus.

And it’s doubly wonderful because video games allowed us to do it in plain sight without being punished for it. Because our parents bought them for us without realizing that they were giving us a portal to another dimension over which they had no control.

Except with all the hand wringing over how much time we were spending playing. It’s been demonized in the mainstream media and in the religious sects. Like calling Pokemon demons.

Or demonizing The Power Rangers. Where are those powers coming from?

Poppers. Jungle Juice! Rush! Pig Pen! Double Scorpio. I don’t like Double Scorpio. Double Scorpio is the Green Ranger of poppers. And I think that needs to be in the interview.

It’s already there. Talk to me about the beautiful sex and porn sequence. Was that staged after the fact or written that way?

It was already written in with the stage directions. I want to be clear here. I don’t write solutions. I create problems. Because if I ever start thinking of how to stage something, I’m not going to write the truth of it. Because then I’m trying to make it easy on myself or easy on someone else. But that’s not what writing is. I’m not just talking about theater. The act of writing is not to make things easier. The reason to write things down is not to simplify things. It’s to find something. To create something from which something else can launch.

That makes me think of people who think writing is witchcraft.

It is witchcraft! When I write, I am channeling. Writing is creating a space for other people. It’s a record of what you’re thinking, and it’s our most successful form of media. Even if you’re watching an ad on TV, whether it’s good all comes down to what was written.

One of the most satisfying and horrific written moments in the play occurs during Maria Jimena’s Oedipal interaction with her dead son’s boyfriend, who is played by the same actor (Clew).

That was her processing grief, and it just doesn’t make sense. So often, in marginalized communities, there are few avenues for grief. Especially when being constrained by gender roles or our sexuality. It’s a f*cked up scene, but I don’t judge her. And as an artist, the creation of that conceit [a boyfriend standing in as a mother’s son] is one of my proudest moments.

Double casting happens all the time. But when you have a mother ask the Vietnamese boyfriend of her dead Mexican son to play him throughout the play; there’s literally no other work that has done that. And then that conceit digs into its full extent. We only feel the f*cked-up-ness of that scene because of the theatrical conceit that was established.♦

american (tele)visions plays Off-Broadway at New York Theater Workshop through October 16.

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