Darrel Alejandro Holnes: Playwright & Poet

Photo by Thomas Kuhn

I recently had the privilege of interviewing Afro-Panamanian poet, playwright and musician Darrel Alejandro Holnes. When I learned that he became the first Afro-Latinx playwright to be named I AM SOUL Playwright-in-Residence at the National Black Theatre in New York, I wanted to learn more about his process. Darrel’s work was first featured on QMT’s special Afro-Latinx Poetry issue earlier this year. The musicality, lyricism and imagery of his poems “Ladies Sing the Blues” and “The Art of Diplomacy” wowed me when I first read them and I knew I wanted his work to be a part of the special issue. It was later that I would find out Darrel is also a playwright and I wanted to learn a little more about how he moves in and out of these various genres and how he feels about being the first Afro-Latinx playwright to be awarded this honor.

Check out our interview below and be sure to read and support Darrel’s amazing work!

Jasminne Mendez: (JM)

Congratulations on being the first Afro-Latinx playwright to be named I AM SOUL Playwright-in-Residence at the National Black Theater (NBT) in New York! How did you hear the news, and what was the selection process like for you?

Darrel Alejandro Holnes (DAH):

Thank you! The theater corresponded with me mostly through e-mail and after an in-person interview, they let me know what I got it but had to keep it a secret for a few months until they could make the announcement public. It’s a pretty cool secret to have kept. It’s strange, now that something I kept so private is out in the world. Even though it’s information and not art or experience, it still felt precious. Well, I’m happy to share this precious piece of news with you now. Thanks for this interview!

JM:

This residency was first established in 2012, but the NBT has been around since 1968. You are the first Afro-Latinx playwright to receive this honor and be featured at the theatre, why do you think it’s taken this long for the Afro-Latinx narrative to take center stage? (And not just at this theatre specifically, but on a larger national level?)

DAH:

Firstly, I’d like to speak to Afro-Latinx playwrights. For any of you who are reading this, know that you are worthy of these opportunities; our stories deserve to be heard, our perspective deserves to be a part of the conversation. I hope that the more we become aware of that as a community the more we will apply for and secure opportunities like this one. As Afro-Latinx Americans, we are so erased, so reduced, so disempowered, that I think the first step is to build back up our visibility, self-confidence, and to celebrate our complex and intersectional identities.

Secondly, regarding theatres, I’m hopeful that more of us can create our own opportunities and not just rely on institutions that have historically and still continue to shut us out. It’s inspiring to learn the history of the National Black Theater, it was founded by Dr. Barbara Ann Teare, a real trailblazer and community leader. I hope that if you are a producer or administrator of color in theatre reading this that you consider starting your own theater and or finding new and innovative ways to serve your community of color this incredible and evolving art form.

I don’t believe in gatekeepers, and it’s belief that endows them with power. Let’s take our power back and believe in ourselves and create more opportunities within and for artists in our own communities and across community lines. Give no one the power to stop you from realizing your dreams.

JM:

How does your Afro-Latinx background influence your work? And why is the label “Afro-Latinx” important to how you identify and tell stories?

DAH:

For me it’s about fighting erasure. So many Afro-Latinx are only read as Black in US History textbooks and in US popular culture and media. And because of this when I tell someone from the US that I’m from Panama, some folks are shocked because they have no idea that there are Black people in Latin America.

I’m not trying to shame people for not knowing things, but rather I blame the textbooks and media for their narrow depiction of people of African descent. And as a content creator I want to address that by making it clear that my Black characters are from all throughout the African Diaspora – Latin American and the Caribbean, the US and Canada, Europe, and beyond. And yes, I do tell African and non-Black stories too, but not in any way that erases the complexity of anyone’s ethnic identities. That’s Old World, this is the New World.

JM:

I first met you a few years ago at a social event hosted by Canto Mundo– a Latinx literary organization that hosts an annual writing retreat for Latinx poets- and therefore was introduced to you and your work via your poetry. We are both CantoMundo fellows and it wasn’t until later that I found out you are also a playwright. What was the first genre you started writing in? And what drew you into the other one?

DAH:

I am first and foremost a musician, and the first things I ever wrote were songs, then children’s stories, then poems. I think the creative mind is stimulated by a lot of things; I grew up in a multilingual household where music was playing all the time so language and music are core to my being, and every time I write in a new form I always try to find the music in it. It really brings me joy!

JM:

Can you tell me a little bit about your process as a writer and how you decide what’s the best way to tell a story? In other words why poetry over playwrighting or vice versa?

DAH:

I really just think about something Thylias Moss once told me when she was my professor back at the University of Michigan – the idea should find its form, not the other way around. The idea should determine whether it wants to be a poem, or a song, or a play, or create a sculpture; not the artist, nor the material, let the idea lead the way!

JM:

Having read both your poetry and plays now, I feel like the language of your plays often leans toward the poetic. I say this because I recently read an excerpt from your play Shell Shock, which is about a young African American military vet Jamil who is suffering from PTSD and his Panamanian girlfriend Mariela who is trying to help him through it. One of the moments in the play that really struck me was when Mariela tells Jamil: “Maybe that’s our way out of this: to play with words until we’re telling a different story, to play with images until we’re seeing a different video each time we press play.” Is that what YOU feel you are doing when you write? Trying to change the narrative? Trying to play with images in order to change the audience’s perspective? Or, if not, what ultimately IS it that you hope to accomplish by telling these stories?

DAH:

I think we all have the power to shape the world, whether it’s with the business decisions you make at your company, or the content and skills you teach as a teacher, or the art you make as an artist. Or even – moving away from occupations – in the daily choices we make when we interact or choose to not interact with people and the environment around us. And although I think it often takes more than one person to effectively change a narrative for all, one person can at least change the narrative for themselves. Look, I’m not a sociologist nor a financial counselor, so I’m not going to tell anyone how to escape poverty or oppression, but I do think what has worked for me is to literally see myself in a different light and realize that more is possible than people are telling me. And what I hope to accomplish by telling these stories is for the audience to realize that more is possible than people are telling them. We cannot change our pasts but we can surely influence our futures.

JM:

Who are some of your influences and mentors? Who are those writers and artists that have shaped you?

DAH:

Playwrights whose works inspire my own include Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, Moises Kaufman (Tectonic Theater Project), Robert O’Hara, Suzan-Lori Parks, and Anna Deveare Smith. But I’m truly inspired by work in visual art, dance, and performance art. Can I take a moment and shout out the Gob Squad? I really enjoy their work and am happy they recently presented work at NYU Skirball. Many of my students attended last year and continue to bring it up in class this year. I think they’re a fascinating group of performers and everyone should check out their work. I’d also like to take a moment and shout out other Afro-Latinx and Afro-Caribbean playwrights en la lucha como Guadalís Del Carmen, Alicia Annabel Santos, April Yvette Thompson, Bobby Bermea, Candido Tirado, Carmen Rivera, Coco Fusco, Crystal Roman, France-Luce Benson, Florinda Bryant, Gustavo Melo Cerqueria, Hector Amaya, Josefina Baez, Kristiana Rae Colón, Krysta Gonzales, Nilaja Sun, Toi Scott, Karl O’Brian Williams.

JM:

What will you be working on while in residence at NBT? And what are you most excited about accomplishing/doing while there?

DAH:

During my residency I will be taking a closer look at stories from the Afro-Latinx community and working with directors, actors, and designers to bring them to the stage in a unique way. It’s a special experience to work with NBT, an institution with such a time-honored history of developing Black theater. Writing, developing, and presenting plays that celebrate my Latinidad within, at intersections with, and alongside Black Americanness and Afro-Latinxness is a great opportunity and challenge. I can’t yet share more than that with the public as the plays are still in process, but I promise it will be quite a show!

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