Get to know playwright Matt Barbot and his new show “El Coquí Espectacular and the Bottle of Doom”
Image source: LRRCollective.com
A native Nuyorican (Puerto Rican New yorker for those of you not in the know), Matt Barbot is a playwright living in Brooklyn, New York. A graduate of Columbia University, Matt has seen several awards for his work, submitting to young playwright contests, and contests looking for works written by Latino/x playwrights.
After having his play “Infallibility” produced back in 2013, and having his play “A List of Sh-t I’ve Killed” recently published, Matt’s writing returns to the stage in a bold and cultural take on the superhero genre with “El Coquí Espectacular and the Bottle of Doom”. Now, on the eve of his shows premiere, Matt sits down to talk with us about Superheros, Theater, and what it means to be an artist of color in our current landscape.
Could you give us some background on ‘El Coquí Espectacular’?
Matt: ‘El Coquí Espectacular and the Bottle of Doom’ is about an out of work comic book artist named Alex who lives in Sunset Park Brooklyn- who doesn’t feel connected to his Puerto Rican heritage. So he creates a superhero that’s the avatar of everything that he thinks it means to be Puerto Rican. As his unemployment drags out he starts to dress up as the character to try and break him out of his block, but as more and more people find out about “the Sunset Park superhero stalking the rooftops” he begins to lose control of his creation.
What went in to the writing of the play, how did you go about developing a piece like this?
Matt: It’s a play that, for me, has been in the works, in one form or another, for ten years. It was inspired, I think, by early family trips to Puerto Rico as a kid. When I first saw the Vejigante masks, I was reminded of the comic books that I read at eight years old. I was reminded of the superheroes I saw on TV and the way that they sort of dressed, especially in the early 90’s when so many superhero designs were very garrish and ornate- they evoke power and a lot of character, and so that idea stuck with me. As I got older it was an idea I returned to but it wasn’t really until I came into contact with the idea of feeling disconnected from your heritage- of this idea of not being “Latino enough”, of “acting White” that you sort of begin to encounter in junior high and high school, that the idea really took shape for me. So it was first workshopped at The Brick, which is a theater in Williamsburg Brooklyn, during their ‘Comic Book Theater Festival’ — which was an awesome event that a lot of really great plays came through. It was a finalist for Repertorio Español’s ‘Nuestras Voces’ competition where it received a reading, since then it’s won a couple of awards from The Kennedy Center and I‘m really excited to be bringing it to life at Two River.
So how does the dynamic between a writer and the various other roles play out when developing a play? What was the overall collaborative process?
Matt: Maybe it’s because I was an actor before I was a playwright, but I always feel that my favorite part of being a playwright is finishing a script and giving it to people, and seeing how other people bring their skills. Like for example when I walked in on the first day of rehearsal I saw how people with talents and skills that I totally don’t have- skills that are way out of my repertoire like set design, and costume design came together to build the world. I haven’t had a lot of input, I haven’t said a lot because I think that they’ve been getting it very right- people have really invested themselves in such a way that I’m always surprised and delighted. I think we’re super proud of the work we’re doing here and it’s really awesome to have the opportunity to work with a theater that has the resources to bring a world of this ambition to life. There are scenes in this play that take place on rooftops and this is the first outing of the play that has a second level for the actors to go up to. The costumes, the fight choreography- it’s really amazing to see things come to life the way that they have.
What have the last few weeks been like leading up to opening night? Any particular emotions that stand out?
Matt: I’m excited, I think nerves are always part of it, but I’m excited. Again, I’m humbled by everything the theater is doing to support the play- from the motion-comic trailer to the sheer level of technical artistry that’s on display right now in tech rehearsal- the projections, the sound, the lighting. I’m excited to bring the play to the audience here at Two River. I think they do a really great job of engaging their community, and I’m interested to see- it’s a play that’s about comic books, it’s about young people, it’s about young Latin characters in New York- it’s not often that plays like this get this sort of platform and I’m excited to see what audiences think.
So I have many friends and peers in theater and writing who’ve had to deal heavily with racism in spaces that are supposed to be freeing. Could you talk about some of your experiences in being a non-white Latino in theater/writing spaces?
Matt: It’s- I don’t know, it’s interesting- I appreciate the question because most of the people I’ve spoken to are in mainstream outlets and I think that it’s very different [there]. Sometimes I’m watching the show in rehearsal and it dawns on me ‘oh I’m gonna be sharing this with a primarily non-Latin audience’ and some of this feels very ‘inside baseball’ for being Latino. I’m a big proponent of the idea that White isn’t universal and in fact that universality means finding the humanity in people that don’t look like you, but at the same time I’m aware of the ways that shows like mine are perceived. There’s stuff in the show that I have in the past worried would be alienating that has turned out not to be so- as far as this show is concerned I’m not really worried about people feeling left out or people feeling like it’s not a show for them.
It always feels different to be in a room of Latin writers as opposed to a room that’s more mainstream — or that’s primarily White as opposed primarily artists of color.
I remember being in a workshop for one of my plays where a character uses the term
“deadass” * and like no one in the room (and me being the only person of color) no one knew what the phrase was- like “what word of speech is this” like “what does he mean when he says that” and then that blends into worrying about how much I’m using Spanglish, worrying about whether this particular thing is connecting, worrying about whether I’m getting positive feedback because something is being perceived as different or exotic. I think there’s an experience of there always being a voice in the back of your head wondering how people are perceiving your work in relation to racial outlets.
When people are responding to your work, how much does that have to do with implicit biases.
And then sometime it’s blatant- I was witness to a piece of feedback that a Latina writer received where she was asked “oh this story is so universal, why aren’t the characters just white?” Sometimes people ask you to tone down certain things because ”oh maybe this will be too alienating”.
I think I’ve been lucky that in a lot of spaces that I’ve been in, I’ve been very supported- Two River, for example, is a very supportive space. Annually, they do a festival called the ‘Crossing Borders Festival’ which is festival of Latino work and they often program shows that come out of there. They’re not just doing this thing that a lot of theaters do which is a sort of momentary performative representation. They’ll devote development time or reading series by marginalized artist, and then help program their mainstages. Redbank, New Jersey is 30-something percent Latino and they do a lot of outreach to that community. I learned recently they did a reading of the Oscar Wilde play “The Importance of Being Earnest” in Spanish translation with actors speaking Spanish for the community, and people showed up- which is really incredible I think, to get the Latino community to show up for a reading of a crusty old english play is a solid indication that they’re doing something right.
It’s really about seeking out theatres and companies and writing groups that focus on writers of color- on Latin writers. Ultimately, it’s done wonders to focus on support from other writers who are dealing with similar themes in their work.
It’s often said we learn something new everyday. In my experience that’s taken to mean that even if you’ve done something before, you’re bound to learn something new from it again in the future. Is there anything in particular that you’ve learned from this project that you haven’t learned from your others?
Matt: So the biggest thing I’ve learned from this project that I haven’t learned from my others is, well, not everyone who’s worked on this play is a comic book nerd, not everybody who’s worked on this play is Latin- of course the cast is but not everybody on the creative team is, many people are maybe neither [comic book nerds nor Latino], but [the biggest thing I’ve learned is in] the power of these tropes to enhance and communicate feeling and humanity — in crossing barriers and sort of transcending what might be seen as cultural specificity. I think the language of comic books and the language of pop culture and mass media in this play really operate in a way that helps audiences to deal with themes that are kinda specific, but to not feel alienated. They get it. It helps us speak about it, because you’re speaking the same language in a way
Are there any other particular endeavours you’d like to pursue in the future? Film or TV? Or is theater your place to be?
Matt: I think theater will always be my first love when it comes to this kind of stuff, but there’s lots of playwrights writing for TV right now. I think there’s a lot of great TV going on, I sure consume a ton of that. I think that I would love the opportunity to write for other mediums. I think within theater I’m still open to performing every once in a while, I’d like to direct when I get the chance but writing is sort of my home here. I think when it comes to writing for other mediums, when I think of possibly writing for television or possibly writing for film, I think of of playwrights I’ve met who are looking at other mediums in a different way that they used to, and that those industries are looking at playwrights in a different way than they used to.
Who’s your favorite superhero, and what hero do you think deserves their own movie?
Matt: I worked on Edgardo Miranda-Rodriguez’s “La Borinqueña” as assistant editor so I’ll acknowledge her and the special place she holds for me, but I’m gonna say that my earliest memories of reading comics were- I remember it because the cover was so great and classic- it was X-Men #1, which was like an early 90s reissue. Those were the designs that the cartoon was based on too- it’s like the image of Wolverine hunched over and Cyclops behind him blasting and screaming and it’s a wrap-around cover, and you had to open it up to see the whole thing, it’s amazing, it’s super classic and that’s the first comic I remember reading. So yeah I was big on The X-men, because those themes of difference come through.
I love Spider-Man, a little Batman. I think I was always attracted to Marvel’s penchant for telling stories that involve their heroes day-to-day lives and their relationships with each other, which I think bears itself out in playwriting. I’m really excited for ‘Into the Spider-Verse’ because I think it’s gonna be cool to see Miles Morales. I’m such an America Chavez stan though! The problem is, I don’t know how to bring her into the MCU because she’s TOO POWERFUL. She could do everything. She’s so good, and during the latest run I actually traveled across the city because my local carrier didn’t have it, so I went to midtown comics to get it- so dope. And I think she’s a cool character, I think she’d be a good Netflix series. I think she’s awesome, but I think she’d be tough to deal with in a movie because she’s so much more powerful than every other Avenger, BUT I could see her in the more Kirby-like entries like Thor or Guardians of the Galaxy- *laughing at himself* I’m getting real into figuring out how to introduce her.
You know who I’d love to see in the DCEU? Static Shock. I don’t think he gets his due. He had that cartoon for a while which is great but I think he deserves a place among the greats in the DC pantheon. He’s not often remembered in those conversations, so those are my answers. My answers are America Chavez and Static Shock!
Do you have any current book, movie, or TV recommendations?
Matt: I love (I mean it’s done now but) “The Leftovers”. I think it’s great so long as you don’t try to watch it like it’s “Lost”. The show is about this major event that happens and the people that are forced to live with it and there’s no one interested in solving the mystery, and I think that frustrates a lot of people, but I think if you give it the time it’s a really great show.
I just finished watching “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”. It’s just such incredible writing. It’s really hard to write characters that are funny people but don’t read like they’re in a comedy all the time- it just happens to be a world inhabited by people who are very witty and that’s a talent to keep those balls in the air without it becoming a different type of show. It’s really really fascinating.
I was reading a comic called “The Goddamned”, which was an Image comic. I’m sort of a sucker for weird takes on mythology and Bible stories, so the “The Goddamned” takes place before the flood and Noah’s ark and it’s like this brutal gritty world that justifies why there would be a flood.
And the main characters is Kane who’s, you know, immortal, and he can’t die, and he keeps trying to die, and there’s like, monsters and it’s just a cool comic and I haven’t met a single other person who’s been reading it, unfortunately.
I was recently rereading “The Sparrow” by Mary Doria Russell which is a sci-fi novel about an alien race where the main character is a Puerto Rican Jesuit priest who sort of takes it upon himself to learn this language — like a music coming from a distant planet and they’re taken by the beauty of it and they launch this mission and it’s a just a beautiful, really human, really painful, really sad novel about cultural misunderstanding and I was just taken by the fact that a scifi novel was making me feel so many emotions. It’s a great novel.
I just saw “The Witch”. It was like, Colonial america- it’s like a tight 90-minute film and so much goes on and it’s so atmospheric so it’s definitely the coolest horror movie I’ve seen recently. But I’ll always throw it back to Guillermo Del Toro’s early Spanish language films, like “Devils Backbone”. “Pan’s Labyrinth” is one of my favorite movies. There are really good horror movies coming out of Spain- if you haven’t seen “REC”, it’s like a mockumentary zombie (???) film. It just scared the Sh-t out of me.
Do you have any words of wisdom or inspiration for young creators of color trying to break into their field?
Matt: I would say two things: There are entire logical frameworks built by people who want to keep artists of color out of media. A lot of times these will come across in probability, like “Oh it’s unlikely that such-and-such person would be a person of color”, or “It’s unlikely that there would be a woman doctor in the 1800’s” or “unlikely that there would be an African knight serving such-and-such King” and I would say that stories are never about likelihood. Stories are about exceptional people, so don’t let people tell you that there wouldn’t be a person of color, that there wouldn’t be an LGBTQ character, that there wouldn’t be a woman in such-an-such position in such-and-such setting. There have always been [diverse] people in these positions and settings- if it was about probability then Harry Potter would be about some randomly picked Hogwarts student, the story wouldn’t be about Luke Skywalker. It’s not about randomly picking people it’s about choosing a character.
The second thing is there are resources online. Always find your communities- find those people who are voicing your concerns. Find people who are creating. Find people who will serve as a support system and be able to see your different way and to see where your work is coming from. Find those people, those groups, those blogs, those theaters, find those mentors that are going to bolster your work and who are going to support you pushing the envelope and not try to tailor you into something different- into something that might seem more palatable- that might seem more mainstream.
I think the specific is universal. People are going to often caution you away from being culturally specific- about speaking two very different experiences because they think it’ll be alienating, primarily for White audiences. But I think what you see again and again in media is that if you are able to be specific about a human experience, people will identify with it- they’ll recognize the humanity in it and they’ll understand it.
I think there’s a pernicious thing that happens in media where an audience, an outlet, anything will be more willing to lavish praise on stories that come from other countries than stories from people from different cultures who live next door, and I don’t think that’s your problem as a creator, that’s the audiences, and I think part of the challenge is helping the audience catch up to where you are.
Do you have any social media pages people can follow you on, and do you have any last thoughts to add?
Matt: I’m on Twitter. My handle is @BarbotRobot. I follow NerdyPOC so you guys’ll probably see me there.
But I’m excited for this play, I’m excited for the opportunities in this changing landscape and I hope that I can continue to help change that landscape and maybe have the opportunity to be a resource in the same way that I was lucky enough to find creators who were creating the work that I wanted to make. I think creators should always be reaching out to the next group of creators. Ultimately I want to change the landscape and I want to continue to create a welcoming environment for marginalized creators, and add a little bit of that to my career. If I can keep doing that I’ll be thrilled.
“El Coquí Espectacular and the Bottle of Doom” runs from January 6th to February 4th at the Two River Theater in Red Bank New Jersey.
Tickets and additional information on the play can be found here.
*author’s note: as a New Yorker, I couldn’t contain my laughter here
Editor: Melissa Lee
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