We all dream of seeing ourselves in the art we love. Even before we become adults and are conscious of words like “equity,” “representation,” and “diversity, we crave to encounter characters who look like us, people who share our cultural background, and artists we can look up to. I always knew I wanted to be a critic, but growing up in Honduras, one of the poorest countries in Latin America, meant I had to carve a path for myself that was unthinkable in my homeland.

Jose Solís is a Honduran culture critic currently based in Honduras. He’s the founder of the BIPOC Critics Lab and recently taught at The Kennedy Center. His work appears in The New York Times, Backstage, and American Theatre, among others.  Our first interview with Jose has even more information.

There were no critics featured in the newspapers or magazines, there was barely any theatre to see in the capital, and the movies at the multiplex were usually popcorn flicks starring white Hollywood stars. It took me 16 years and leaving my country, to be able to realize my childhood dream. In New York City, I was able to turn my passion for art and conversation about it, into a way to make a living. Being one of the few Latino critics in my industry also led me to become a champion of works by and about people from historically excluded communities.

Few things give me more pleasure than seeing works by artists who “get” me, who share my cultural references, who understand what it’s like to exist on the margins. I’ve seen over 2,000 plays and musicals, each of them rewarding in their own way, each of them pushing me to become a better critic. But in the following seven works by BIPOC playwrights, the kid who grew up in the developing world, was able to feel embraced by the field he adored so much.

Sweat by Lynn Nottage
Sitting through Sweat during one of the most tumultuous moments in recent American politics, at first, felt like an ordeal. Set in a small working-class town in Pennsylvania, the plot revolves around people who have learned to distrust anyone who doesn’t look like them. People who “take their jobs,” and threaten their existence. There I was, being asked to have empathy for people very similar to those who had just elected a president who hated everything I represented. But because of Lynn Nottage’s sensitive, deeply humanistic writing, I left the theater transformed. Sweat felt like a prayer, a dream of a world where beyond the pain, we are able to see and love each other, because, not in spite of our differences. 

Usual Girls by Ming Peiffer
In a world that often demands women exist in accordance with rules set by the patriarchy, Ming Peiffer’s Usual Girls felt like a breath of fresh air. The play opens in a school playground, where young Kyeoung learns about the differences between boys and girls through the filter of unexpected violence. We follow Kyeoung’s journey into womanhood through perfectly structured vignettes, each one more achingly recognizable than the last. Like a lost work from an imagined era where BIPOC women were allowed to create John Hughes’-like coming of age stories, Usual Girls is a song about the irrepressible need to discover who we are by setting our own rules.

Fairview by Jackie Sibblies Drury
Fairview hits you in different ways when you read it and when you see it. On the page, it exists as a docudrama and a meditation. Playwright Drury’s darkly funny dialogue and keen eye at capturing the depth in the minutiae of the quotidian, make for an enjoyably cerebral read. Watching the first New York production at Soho Rep however, proved to be one of the most unforgettable experiences of my life as a critic. Drury’s story, about a Black family coming together to celebrate a landmark birthday, while being observed by four white people, turned the gaze of an audience on its head. Who gets to see, who is seen, and why, remind us of the urgency of theatre, and how often we can forget our complicity.

Is God Is by Aleshea Harris
Combining elements of Spaghetti Westerns, road trip movies, Afropunk, and Greek myths, Harris’ tale of revenge and absolution, epitomizes what the American theatre can accomplish when it doesn’t follow the traditions it’s often bound by. Harris’ poetry, as delivered by characters who are both larger than life and intensely human, reverberated in my mind for weeks after seeing the production at Soho Rep. Her tale of twin sisters obsessed with avenging their mother’s death is as monumental as a John Ford production, but unlike romantic tales of the Wild West, Is God Is, speaks about the present, making us wonder if a harrowing future is inescapable.

Slave Play by Jeremy O. Harris
References in plays are often reserved for the canonical works of Shakespeare, O’Neill, and myriad other white male artists. How delightful it is then to encounter the words of Rihanna emblazoned throughout Jeremy O. Harris’ insightful exploration of desire, filtered through three interracial relationships on the brink of collapse. As hilarious as it is heartbreaking, Slave Play, set a precedent for the ways in which contemporary playwrights can pay tribute to the art that shaped them. From RiRi to Ginuwine, Harris unabashedly celebrates Black pop culture, establishing that the healing power of art should not be policed by antiquated tastemakers.

Mojada by Luis Alfaro
In recent years, Chicano playwright Luis Alfaro has focused on adapting the Greek classics into modern tales that explore Latinidad. His take on Euripides’ Medea turns the vilified character into a Latina immigrant seeking to build a new life in the United States. Her dreams are soon crushed by a system that doesn’t consider her humanity, leading to a climax that truly feels inevitable. Alfaro’s simple dialogues become a melancholy ballad, an ode to the unsung. His lyrical scenes set against the incessant rush of modern life are an invitation to find beauty in places where it’s practically been outlawed.

A Movie Star Has to Star in Black and White by Adrienne Kennedy
During her youth, Adrienne Kennedy was obsessed with classic Hollywood films. As most people of color, denied the opportunity to see themselves as heroes in fiction, she learned how to project herself onto white movie stars. A few of those legends, including Bette Davis and Marlon Brando, appear as characters in her portrait of a young Black woman learning how to navigate in a society that demands she is less than she can be. A remarkable work that explores the ways in which art defines our identity, the rarely staged play remains one of the most impressive plays in Kennedy’s astonishing oeuvre. 

Jose Solís is a Honduran cultural critic. In 2020 he launched the BIPOC Critics Lab, a workshop designed to train critics of color. The second installment of which was hosted by the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. In October of 2021, he will lead a cohort of critics in the new criticism publication Did They Like It, as well as co-editing 3Views.

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