When Dominic Colón won the inaugural Write It Out! (WIO!) Playwright’s Prize competition for The War I Know, the thrill he felt leapt off the page.
“You don’t always control what the blessing in your life will look like, but you do control what you do with it! HIV is that blessing!” he said in a prepared statement about the December 1, 2021, literary contest announcement. “Writing and developing The War I Know has not only been one of the greatest joys of my life, but it has also been a major part of my own healing and liberation.Healing and liberation are my prayer for everyone. That is why I write! That is what theatre at its best can do. That is what we at our best can do! I’m so honored to be the inaugural recipient of the WIO! prize. With the support of WIO!, I can continue to develop The War I Know trilogy so that it can inspire healing and liberation to those who need it! And we ALL M*THERF*CKIN need it!”
Donja R. Love [A&U, December 2021] created the Write It Out! workshop program for playwrights living with HIV/AIDS in partnership with National Queer Theater, Mobilizing Our Brothers Initiative (MOBI), The Lark, and The Each-Other Project. Subsequently, the program launched the WIO! playwriting competition. Tony and Emmy-winner Billy Porter donated $5,000 as a cash prize, which is supplemented with a stipend and one-year’s dramaturgical support from GLAAD.
It’s easy to understand why The War I Know, which is the first play in a planned trilogy, took top honors. Set in the Castle Hill Projects in the Bronx in the late eighties and early nineties, the play is a masterful work whose central characters—Eggie, Puchi, Macho, Nene, Maribel, and the Soldier—will live in your heart.
Early in the play, we meet Eggie, a twelve-year-old whose favorite movie is Fame and who dreams about performing on stage, in mid-audition for Mr. Larry, an after-school performing arts program director who is mounting a production of Annie. He is full of life, despite the obstacle course of bullying and homophobic slurs he must run every day. Later in the play, however, the animus all becomes too much. An older Eggie responds to Puchi, when she notices the change in him: “The world beat the joy outta me.” It’s a heart-stopping moment. Sixteen years old—and the joy is gone. But, gone forever? Though a child, Eggie is played by an adult and Colón cleverly allows the audience to see the man Eggie might become, and we will see that man, once he finishes the trilogy and the characters grow through the decades.
The reference to Annie at the start of The War I Know helps set up our understanding of the characters. They are not a Depression-era white girl banking on “Tomorrow,” but a corps of parentless siblings (Puchi, Macho, and Nene) who are struggling to get through each day but nevertheless trying to make their way through a world that doesn’t make it easy to succeed for Latinx people, or gay twelve year-olds, or teen girls living with HIV. With Puchi as the maternal center, they adopt Maribel (formally) and, informally, a neighbor kid, Eggie, who Puchi babysits. They are characters orphaned—orphaned by AIDS, crack, economic oppression, PTSD.
“The War I Know is very close to my heart. That opening monologue [when Eggie talks to Mr. Larry] is true,” Dominic Colón shares during our Zoom interview. Ever since he was a little kid, the self-described “Bronx-born-and-bred, Nuyorican, Boricua gay male” Colón has been interested in acting. He started out at the Kips Bay Boys & Girls Club (which moved from the Manhattan neighborhood of Kips Bay north to the Castle Hill community in the Bronx in 1969), which has a performing arts program, whose alum include Jennifer Lopez and Kerry Washington. (Pose co-creator Steven Canals did not attend the program but was part of the club). The performing arts program was founded by a dancer, a real Mr. Larry, and, says Colón, “it became a big haven in our community.” His interest sparked in acting and dance, he went on to perform in plays in high school.
“I stood out in a positive way. At least in my head I received it as positive,” he notes, explaining that being “overweight, affected, gay, flamboyant” as a kid only drew negative attention around the neighborhood. He enjoyed the positive attention and discovered he was good at performing. He wasn’t a fan of school, but he had found a way to stay engaged and so he auditioned for New York University and got in.
Colón’s foundation in the arts (and a deep well of talent) has led to an exceptional, multi-hyphenate career—actor, writer, director, and producer.
As an actor, he has performed in over fifty films and television shows, including guest spots on Power, The Blacklist, and Orange Is the New Black and in the Showtime limited series Escape at Dannemora. Younger readers may recognize him as Manny in the 2009–2011 rebooted The Electric Company.
As a writer, he turned his BRIO (Bronx Recognizes Its Own) award-winning play, Crush, into a screenplay and won the 2011 HBO/New York International Film Festival Short Film Script Competition. With funding from HBO and a small window of time (nineteen days), he made Crush into film. Crush, about a gay teen at prom, premiered at the Latino Film Festival and played on the festival circuit, as well as on HBO.
Another film, Skin, also won a BRIO for screenwriting; a comedy about a man who is afraid to have sex with his boyfriend without a shirt because of weight loss-related loose skin, the film premiered at the HBO New York Latino Film Festival before going onto the film festival circuit. He also created a half-hour television pilot, Papi. Currently, Colón is a staff writer on Pink Marine, an upcoming Netflix series.
His play Prospect Ave. or The Miseducation of Juni Rodriguez was produced at New York City’s Rattlestick Theater. The War I Know has been developed by the Latinx Playwrights Circle, LAByrinth Theater Company (2021 Barn Series), and SOLFEST.
As a director, he has helmed Eduardo Machado’s Marquitas (Rattlestick Theater/Pride Plays), Episodes 4-6 of The MTA Radio Plays at Rattlestick Theater, and the LAByrinth Theater Company (Zoom) reading of The War I Know, starring Victor Almanzar, Robin De Jesús (Tick Tick Boom; The Boys in the Band) , Paola Lázaro (The Walking Dead), Marlon Quijije, Daphne Rubin-Vega (RENT), Ed Ventura, and Kara Young.
Colón’s short play Where’s Our Angels?, which is the first scene of the third play in the War trilogy, received the 2021 Latinx Playwrights Circle & Pregones/PRTT Greater Good Commission. A recent reading, which Colón also directed, starred Javier Muñoz, Eddie Mujica, and Ed Ventura.
As one of the prizes of the WIO! competition is a year-long consultation with the aforementioned GLAAD-sponsored dramaturg to develop a new work, Colón is using the opportunity to finish the third play of the War trilogy. Later, he will write the second play.
His dream is to have these plays one day in repertory.
Says Colón: “I had this idea for The War I Know in my head for a long time—beginning, middle, end. But then at the beginning of the [COVID] pandemic, I noticed myself being triggered by a lot of the language.” He started to see the parallels of the COVID pandemic and the HIV/AIDS pandemic, particularly in the way that individuals experiencing poverty were being treated. “I saw my experience, the experience of some of the members of my family, and I thought, Wow, we have gone through all of this together. Because it’s not just me. The characters in The War I Know are loosely based off of family members. So the first play is all about death, what war does, and specifically the war of HIV and the crack epidemic and the effects of that around community. The second play is all about rebuilding and it takes place on the first anniversary of 9/11—that’s the first act and the second act begins on the night of Barack Obama’s first inauguration. And then the third play begins on the night before the Broadway shutdown.”
The War I Know speaks not only to the joy he experienced as a child discovering his gifts but also the trauma, individual and collective, the generational trauma that comes from the ways in which systemic racism and homophobia, and other engines of Othering, negatively impact (in this case) Puerto Rican families in the Bronx. As the play progresses, the characters help each other write a manifesto of healing.
The play is educative and empowering, centering contextualized social issues and critical perspectives without losing sight of the universal human condition. With its deft unpacking of the silencings of Latinx experiences in white-supremacist America and the abuse experienced by gay people and people living with HIV/AIDS, it’s hard to imagine Colón didn’t always know what he wanted his art to be or to do. Like most students, he was in the process of finding himself at NYU but a sobering experience led to a course correction. During sophomore year he started working a lot as an actor, going on auditions, doing plays, while making the hour-and-fifteen-minute commute back and forth from the Bronx to NYU in Greenwich Village. Needing to work and caught up in the nonstop struggle of becoming a working actor, he convinced himself he didn’t need academic classes. “But no one told me that Incompletes turn into Fs,” he says, with a signature laugh as big as a bearhug. “I stopped going to certain classes. I never withdrew…[and] I ended up being placed on terminal probation.”
At the time, he was also in the process of opening the closet door wider and wider and knew he needed to move out of his neighborhood. He applied for a job as a teacher/counselor at a summer program for economically marginalized youth at the Boys Club of New York (different than the Kips Bay one) and was hired. It was a Monday through Friday 24/7 on-site job, so he only went home on weekends.
It was a crucial move. At the Boys Club, he discovered his ability to teach performing arts and inspire students.
“And I found myself, with everyone else, teaching the importance of education. Being this mentor,” he says about the family-like environment that allowed the staff and young clients to bond. Yet, a massive contradiction wasn’t sitting well with him. On the one hand, he was championing education and on the other hand he was failing out of school.
His counselor at NYU advised him to withdraw from the program to avoid the stigma of being kicked out.
“I remember I was on West 4th, calling my mom—this was pre-cell phone days—and I [asked her] What am I going to do?
“And she said, You’re going to go and register for school…”
He did. He stayed in school but took electives that spoke to him—Theater of the Oppressed, Actor and Education, and so on. “All education courses, so—the intersection of social justice and education. I never got less than a 3.7—in anything,” he says with pride. He raised his cume and, even with four Fs on his transcript, he was graduated with a B-.
The experience “instilled in me this importance of knowing that my art coould be used for something bigger,” he says, noting that after graduation he didn’t wait tables but signed on as a theater director of an educational theater company focused on HIV education. And, as a teaching artist, he was able to develop his acting and playwriting skills. “I was able to use all of these skills that created my artisty that eventually led me to creating and writing, but specifically work that is centered through social justice and social issues.”
Though emboldened by his anti-oppression mission as a teacher and an artist, he was aware that the industry very often lags on progressive movements. “I graduated in ‘99, so as I entered the business there wasn’t a lot of opportunity. We had Oz, we had Third Watch, and eventually we got Law & Order and Law & Order: SVU and I started working my way through all the New York shows.” But casting directors matched his physical type with the drug dealer, the villain-type roles. Colón reiterates, “There wasn’t a lot of opportunity. But I was grateful to be working. That was the other side of it.”
He began to chart his own course, as much as he could. His belief that representation matters led Colón to create his own work, like Crush and Skin and eventually The War I Know, that could tell the complex stories that weren’t being told about Latinx communities, about being gay, about living with HIV.
And though he knew how society and its institutions needed to heal, he wasn’t sure how to usher in his own healing. So, when he found success early on with Crush, he wasn’t able to capitalize on it as much as he could. “Crush was the spark…It made me realize the potential of what I could do with my art, but in order for me to do what I had to do I had to work on myself first. And that’s when I started my own journey of healing, physically, mentally, spiritually, all of that stuff.”
Post-Crush “was an incredibly dark period of my life,” he says, as he was beginning to come to terms with his serostatus. He became positive in 2005 at twenty-eight but told few people; he didn’t tell his best friend for a couple of years or his mother for six years. He had been cocooned by shame for decades and shame fueled the silence.
“I’ve known I was gay since I was a child. And that’s when I really started feeling—that was the beginning of my trauma,” he explains. With Mr. Larry, Dominic had felt seen. And Dominic had a moment of inchoate recognition with Mr. Larry: I’m like him. “And it was heartbreaking, losing him so fast. Because auditions were in September, October 1986 and he died February ‘87 [of AIDS-related causes].”
“I would have never thought it would have the effect on me that it did, being so young,” he says about Mr. Larry’s death. Misinformation about AIDS was swirling around, too—”this mysterious thing that supposedly only killed gay people but other members of your family had it. And all of this secrecy and all of this shame. And then realizing that you’re [gay].”
AIDS loomed over him as a young person. Is that going to happen to me? became a horizon that haunted him.
And then it did happen to him. “The shame that I carried when I tested positive, being the theater director of a company that did HIV prevention,” he says about the should-have-known-better chastisements we sometimes flog ourselves with. “And all of the fucked-up psychological shit that I did to myself, to a certain extent because of being raised with that shame. It affects you in ways you couldn’t possibly understand, growing up as a kid.”
He continues: “I feel like I was set up, almost, by society, in terms of toxic masculinity, with a lack of mentorship. I didn’t have that community. And a bunch of my peers didn’t as well.” His writing is invested with “getting to the root of that, telling that story, specifically, because oftentimes narratives around HIV (at least on the stage for the most part) are told through the lens of the gay white male, which is why I’m such a fan of Donja and everything that he’s doing with the Write It Out! program and the Write It Out! prize.
“I told him one time he’s saving lives. He saved mine.”
Winnng the WIO! prize and continuing to work on the play has been healing. And healing is a process that is not yet complete. But he knew entering the contest meant the possibility of telling the world he was living with HIV.
Colón says he makes bets on himself, and he knew he needed to step up with The War I Know: “You better fucking walk the walk, dog. You better be the person you say you are——that’s a mantra of mine.”
He says: “Not to sound cocky but I knew I was going to win. And for me it was a test because I was like, You’re going to win and you’re going to come out about your status. I knew I had been doing the work to support that.”
People knew he was living with HIV, but “there’s just a difference between having a circle know and then being able to Google that shit,” he says with a laugh. Most people supported him and he was met with a lot of love. Coming out about his serostatus “has been liberating and I feel that it allows me to work on this play…How can I say this? I knew that I could not tell the whole story of this play, these plays, in the way that I want to and not be out about my status. I feel like I have to be. This is what it is.”
It aligns with his working definition of healing: “The goal every day is to love myself more. To be more fully present. To live and be my authentic self and to show up as my full self in all situations.”
To illustrate, he mentions the show he has been working on, Pink Marine. The writers’ room is like a family, “amazing people,” he says. “One of my affirmations every day is to show up as my full self, unapologetically. Be fearless with my opinions. Because it’s a queer show about a young man who’s positive in the military in 1990. And I’m fully aware that I’m the only Latino writer in the room. I’m one of two gay males who lived through this generation. So I have an obligation to these characters that we tell them with humanity and with complexity and love.”
It doesn’t matter if his suggestions are taken or not, ultimately. “It’s one of those things where you have to go out and you have to fight for your characters and fight for their choices. And that’s not always easy to do sometimes in predominantly white spaces, typically in Hollywood, because even though society has been going through this reckoning it does take time for certain things that were established to change and I recognize that when I come into the room I bring Dominic and I’m not going to apologize for bringing Dominic.” He laughs good-heartedly because he knows sometimes people need time to get used to him, though he is serious about people seeing and accepting all of him.
“But it’s work—because showing up for yourself is exhausting ,especially when you’re tired. But I do it, one, because I have to be happy with myself. And, two, I realize that it’s bigger than me. So that, I guess, is what healing looks like—because it’s a choice. Do you know what I’m saying? That’s why alcohol addiction or any sort of addiction can become [an issue] because you could choose not to heal and to stay in pain. The thing is, healing fucking hurts….and it takes a lot of fucking work…I feel like everyone is capable of it but it’s not easy.”
The War I Know touches on generational trauma with clarity, and so I ask Dominic if he sees healing as a venture of the individual plus larger networks/communities.
“I do. And that’s one of the reasons why I do what I do. My mom is going to be eighty years old—and she just started therapy. I’m so proud of her….” He tears up at the thought of it. “And even in that, that is a huge success. You know what I’m saying? If I can encourage that…
“You know how people say, people always write about one thing, over and over again? I feel like my theme is people stepping into the best version of themselves. Because I believe that. Like I said, that’s one of my goals! I think about it every day. That’s at the center of my work and everything that I do.
“Because I feel like: I didn’t know what the fuck generational trauma was. I knew its effects.” He laughs to punctuate how well he knew its effects. “I knew what it did to me later on, once I got the word. Oh, that’s why we’re like this. That’s why we have this issue in my family. That’s why we don’t talk about certain things.
“It’s unfortunate but, collectively, shit can’t change until we we address that.”
Colón’s mention of his mother reminds me of how strongly women are portrayed in The War I Know. Puchi is burdened with trying to take care of everyone. And Puchi and Maribel protect and nurture Eggy. Crush also features the character Nikki, who is super-supportive of Michael, the gay teen. Asked if that is something he wanted to bring out, the importance of women in the lives of gay men, or particularly gay Latinx men, Colón says, “Definitely, in Crush. Because I have always had the privilege of being around women who were really, really encouraging….I grew up with a lot of anxiety, so I’ve been fortunate enough to have my special corps of divas, of all genders [laughs], to lift me up.
“Puchi, for me, is representative of some women in my life who embody resilience, who face so many obstacles. I gave this note to an actor who was playing her in that live reading we did of that first act and I was like, She is the captain of a ship that is sinking, and she is trying to fix the holes with duct tape. She’s not going to [fix everything] but she’s trying. It’s hard, but no matter what she’s going to fight.”
I mention that, in The War I Know, it’s great to see a representation of HIV/AIDS in the eighties that’s not about activism, about gay, middle-class white men taking to the streets, but Colón has a different take. The activism is present. “I think Puchi is very much an activist. It’s different. It’s not going to ACT UP….Her activism is different.
“There are so many other stories. I live for Angels in America. I live for The Normal Heart. But I’ve realized there are so many other stories that it doesn’t represent. To me that’s one of the reasons why I decided to write [The War I Know]; it’s because I felt like because me and so many people that I know went through a different type of experience that hasn’t been seen in the theater.”
The character of Macho also comes to offer an emotion-centered activism. Near the end of the play, Macho wants to break the cycle of the generational trauma: “It true tho. That pain. Poisons. And it spreads. From Papi to Mami….she passed it to us….and unless we do something we gonna keep passin it and passing it. I don’t wanna pass it. I want to heal….”
Deep into Act Two of The War I Know, Macho says: “The only thing that’s REAL is how we make each other feel. And I know, I spent enough time in my life making people hurt and makin em feel like shit. And I want to do better. I want to be a good person. I want to be the person, whose actions, matches his heart.”
Helping each other feel something. A different form of activism.
“I don’t have favorites but I have a particular soft spot for Macho because I feel like Macho is the character that people always write off and, as someone who has often felt written-off, it’s so important that the Machos of the world get seen and validated as human beings who feel and who hurt and experience joy and who are capable of change,” says Colón. “Just because a character looks a certain way or talks a certain way doesn’t mean, you know [they aren’t worthy]…they are worthy of love and they’re worthy of their stories being told.
“I love all of my characters but I always fight for the Machos.”
Colón himself has come to understand how precious the transformative power of healing can be. When he was first diagnosed, during that “dark period,” he would dismiss advocates who proclaimed living with HIV as a blessing. Now, he feels blessed.
“I have come into the Dominic now as a result of that experience. And I have learned that I am not only resilient but I am worthy of all great things,” he says. “That’s why it was so important for me to come out with my status and live in that truth. Because receiving the diagnosis…it was so hard. To be able to come through that and realize that my diagnosis was not who I am. Who I am is that spirit of resilience, [which allowed him] to get back up and thrive and provide spaces for others to thrive and tell stories that really uplift community and culture. That is a blessing. I would not take it back for the world because I really do believe if it wasn’t supposed to happen then it wouldn’t have happened. I feel like that is a part of my journey and I love who I am now. So that’s how it’s a blessing.”
Dominic Colón is looking forward to workshopping The War I Know this summer, possibly in Los Angeles, thanks to sponsorship from The Sol Project. It’s a next step in securing a full production.
Says Colón: “It’s so exciting talking about this play because I know we’re still working and I can’t wait till the one day when people get to see and experience it—the complexity of it, the journey of it.”
That day will come. Sooner rather than later, one hopes. And when audiences are able to experience The War I Know, they will, in turn, be blessed.
Chael Needle interviewed Grace Detrevarah for the February cover story.