Emilio Rodriguez thought nothing of it when he handed a cache of unproduced scripts to an Ann Arbor artistic director four years ago. Rodriguez isn’t new to Michigan’s theater scene — he teaches screenwriting at the University of Michigan and serves as artistic director of Detroit’s Black and Brown Theatre, which creates opportunities for theater artists of color and the communities they are a part of. Now, after pandemic delays and an 11th-hour cast illness, “God Kinda Looks Like Tupac” is, at last, playing at Theatre Nova in Ann Arbor until Aug. 21.
The roughly 90-minute play explores ongoing questions of identity, race and classroom politics as it tells the story of a young Black student named Corinne (MJ Handsome) who paints an unorthodox portrait of God for a Black History Month symposium. Corinne’s artwork depicts a harmonious multicultural crowd enjoying a sunny day in Detroit, watched over not by a bearded octogenarian, but late hip-hop legend Tupac Shakur. Corinne’s teachers Karina (Maria “Mo” Ochoa), a Cuban-American Spanish teacher, and Garrett (Nate Brassfield), a white art teacher, wrestle with how or whether to support her choice.
Still, Rodriguez, who identifies as gay and won the Robert Chesley/Victor Bumbalo LGBT Playwriting Award in 2018, thinks that the LGBTQ+ community is uniquely positioned to understand Corinne and her struggle to be seen and understood.
“I hope that people who are a part of any community that identifies as marginalized, whether it’s LGBTQ+, disabled and/or BIPOC can connect with Corinne’s journey of being told how she should identify or being told how she should acknowledge her identity,” Rodriguez says.
Originally written in 2015, the play hits differently now, as a result of a changed cultural climate. George Floyd’s murder, the #MeToo movement, the COVID-19 pandemic and many other moments have rattled the country’s sensibilities about race, security and narrative. Watching a young artist use her voice while her teachers stumble over how to respond, the play strikes a nerve. Ultimately, there isn’t a clean break between right and wrong.
Rodriguez tells Pride Source that all the characters are “a little bit right,” even the volatile, frustrated Garrett. “Even Garrett’s reactions are a result of a systemic problem rather than a personal problem. So I think because we’re limited in the amount of characters that we see, it kind of can read as like, oh, Garrett is a problem. But my intention is for him to represent an educational problem that I think is getting more and more attention now on social media.”
Rodriguez, who has worked as a substitute and full-time teacher, empathizes with teachers — and the root causes of the shortage thereof — who are often spread thin and caught on TikTok at a breaking point. He noted that teachers take on a variety of roles in their students’ lives and that non-teachers aren’t in a place to shame them or assume that they would necessarily behave differently if put in that situation.
“I’m so glad that people are having conversations, finally, about the disrespect that the American educational system has for teachers,” Rodriguez says. “I think it’s a long overdue conversation, but it also makes me wonder, OK, and now what are we going to do about that?”
What Rodriguez has done, and will continue to do, is pose these questions to live audiences.
Reflecting on the process of creating this play, he thought it was “completely unproducible” in 2015. Still, even as conversations about race and identity have become more mainstream, Rodriguez chose not to rewrite the play for a 2022 audience.
“It makes me wonder how much is still relevant,” Rodriguez says, “which in some ways that can feel kind of sad, that we’re still having the same conversations that were in my forefront in 2015. But I think it showed that 2020 gave us a lot of pause and reflection to think about these conversations, and think about these problems. And now we’re in the phase where we can start to take action on them and start to really delve into that conversation where I think so many more people are invested in it now than 2015 or 2010.”
Rodriguez cautioned, though, that even though audiences are more aware of these conversations, that people are liable to forget. Food for thought: Rodriguez believes that the play would have a slightly different ending in 2021 than 2022.
“In 2021, we were, as a country, in a much more reflective state because everything was on a pause, for us to acknowledge our own biases much deeper,” he says. “In 2022, as we’re returning to normal, our time for reflection is getting shorter because we are returning to our normal routines.”
“God Kinda Looks Like Tupac” is currently playing at Theatre Nova in Ann Arbor through Aug. 21. Tickets are $22, with a pay-what-you-can option. For tickets and more information, visit Theatre Nova’s website.