Viviann “True” Rodriguez is no stranger to the lime light. This well-seasoned veteran has published two books of poetry, was the sole female emcee of renowned Latino poetry troupe El Grito de Poetas, is the founder of a non-profit and returns with yet another sold-out run of her stage play In Defense of Glitter and Rainbows. Viviann may be a one-woman show but she’s a woman who recognizes true strength comes in numbers. After several years of honing her craft, this Afro-Latina is coming through with a bucket full of glitter for the non-believers.
1. Who is Viviann “True” Rodriguez?
Wow. Well, I’m still figuring that out. I guess the short answer is, she’s a mother, author, artist, educator, lover, and friend. Based on the past Viviann “True” Rodriguez is a girl who decided that good wasn’t enough, that survival wouldn’t be the goal. She is a teenager who made it when all the signs pointed at her not living past 21. She is a woman who decided that as long as she had breath in her lungs, she would tell the stories of the voiceless because there was a time when she, too, had no voice. I am a woman hell-bent on creating a legacy for my daughter, Latinas, and women across the globe.
2. In 2014 you released your book Climbing Ivy and then founded the non-profit The Climbing Ivy Project. Can you tell us more about your vision?
The Climbing Ivy Project is a non-profit mentoring program for women worldwide. Our mission is to create a global network of young women to bring change to the world. If you’ve ever looked close at an ivy climbing a wall, you’ll notice all those branches started from one vine which kept expanding until the wall (or obstacle) is covered. That’s what I want to create for young women everywhere- connection. Knowing that we are not alone on our paths and that our sisters have our back, pushing us to keep climbing until we make it to the top.
I decided to begin this project after taking a trip to Ireland to visit a good friend. It was my first time in Europe and what I discovered in the women there was a fearlessness that I’d never experienced. These women had a privilege many couldn’t afford- they had traveled as teenagers. They knew what the world smelled, felt, and tasted like. This experience made them fierce go-getters and unafraid of failure. I imagined my students who rode the train into Manhattan with me for a school trip, wide-eyed with amazement because they’d never left Brooklyn in their 16 years of life. What would life be like if they had the opportunity to see even more? I decided it was time to find out.
3. Would you say mentorship has played a significant role in your artistry? In which way?
Two words- Beaté Petties. Ms. Petties was one of my mother’s best friends and my fiercest advocate. If, and when, it was up to her I was to run free to be anything I wanted. If my hair were neatly combed, she’d pull my hair out of its ribbons and tell me my wild Afro hair was beautiful. If I wanted to write, she would read my poems with excitement. If I wanted to paint, she’d laugh as she wiped up the paint on her floors. When she found out I could sing, she invited her Hollywood friends to listen. When I wanted to teach, she brought me to her class to tutor her students. Ms. Petties would go on to sign me up for an open mic when I was too scared to write my name on the list. That night 16 years ago at the Brooklyn Moon gave birth to who I am now, and it’s all because of her. Ms. Petties, until the day she died, taught me by example and experience that nothing was impossible and happiness was just a smile away if you chose it.
As a writer my first mentor, and he probably doesn’t even know I thought of him as a mentor, was Chris Slaughter. When I first started performing poetry, everything was either highly political or metaphysical. I remember Chris getting on stage and reciting a poem called ‘Street Jazz and Ghetto Blues’ about growing up with a single mother. It blew my mind. I couldn’t believe that the life I’d lived, and was working so hard to escape, could be turned into poetry. Not a rap song, but poetry. It changed my life. I began to write my story, poem by poem, calling Chris for his insight and opinion. He was brutal. I cursed him out a few times, I’m sure. But he brought out the best in my writing. I don’t know if In Defense of Glitter and Rainbows would exist if he hadn’t encouraged me to write stories and develop characters in poetry. I never thought of that until now. Wow.
4. Your play In Defense of Glitter and Rainbows made it’s debut in Spring ’15. It was a one-night engagement that opened to a standing room only. One year later you’ve secured a theater and a solid two-week run. What’s different this time around?
The world is different. There is such a need for healing and sisterhood amongst women. When I first wrote the play, I wanted to tell a story that would resonate with women. During that first run, I witnessed a sisterhood amongst women like none I’d ever experienced. It was beautiful. Women that had never met before that day were holding hands and sharing stories.
This year has brought more attacks against women and our rights all over the world, with no apparent end in sight. We need to stand with each other now more than ever. I guess I’m a dreamer, but I see the world where women are comfortable in their skin, where we hold each other up, where we open doors and clear paths for each other, where we see the good & bad in our sisters and still love them whole-heartedly. I’m tired of watching us fight and argue like uneducated fools on TV and the streets. It’s time for us to heal and the only way to make that happen is the tear the band-aid off and air out the wound. For most of us that wound was first acquired at home and with our first loves, and so I wrote In Defense of Glitter and Rainbows.
The difference this year, outside of casting, is the introduction of a male character. I believe that if I’m going to tell a story, I want to tell the whole story from all sides. As our fathers, brothers, and lovers, they get to have a voice, too.
5. What inspired some of the themes within the play?
The women in my family, my guerreras, are my inspiration. I grew up in a matriarchal family. My mother, grandmothers, and aunts were strong and fierce. As I got older, they began to share their stories with me, and I was amazed at their depth. Women who had been lied to, cheated on, beaten, and exploited had turned it all around and received degrees from prestigious universities, had careers that inspired others had families that loved them with their entire beings, and were always willing to give of themselves. They were the epitome of abundance. They could’ve given up, and no one would have blamed them if they even noticed. But they didn’t give up. They kept climbing while never losing their joy. Our joy, and what we are willing to do to defend it, is the running theme of the play. How do we protect? How do we keep it secure in our spirit? How do we make sure to pass it on to those who come next?
I know this is a play about women, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t say my father was a huge inspiration, as well. During the writing of this play, we had an in-depth conversation about what it means to be a man in love. I mean, wow, I wish I had that conversation with him years ago, it would’ve saved me a lot of heartbreak. I felt like the audience needed that bit of insight this time around.
6. I remember a conversation you and I had in regards to casting. Although there is a universal arc within the storyline that women of all walks can relate to, it was important for you to cast women of color as the leads. How important is representation in your work?
It’s time we see ourselves on stage. Period. And not as the “spicy” Latina, ghetto homegirl, or the drug dealer, but as the main characters driving our stories. Latinos attend more movies and listen to more radio than any other ethnic group in the United States. Programs featuring Latino talent and storylines have some of the highest ratings and revenues. Still, only 6% of Broadway, off-Broadway, and off-off-Broadway shows are written by Latinos. Only 3% of all Broadway actors are Latino. 2.3 million Latinos are living in New York City. How is it that the only plays on Broadway about us are about famous people? What about Mercedes in the Lower East Side and Gina from Spanish Harlem? You mean to say we don’t have stories to tell?
As an Afro-Latina, I didn’t see anyone on a stage that looked like me until Celia came out, and that was off-broadway. Shoot, cats, have been better represented on Broadway than us! No, it’s time that we get to hear our songs, our language, our refranes, our culture on the big stages. It’s time we have characters that remind us of our grandparents, our neighbors, and our children. Watching what Beyonce accomplished with Lemonade for black women, the voice she gave them, the opportunity to be seen, resonated with me in so many ways. Unfortunately, we don’t have a superstar Latina making visual interpretations of our stories- yet. Until then, it’s up to us in the trenches to begin to create a space for the conversation that must be had. Where do we fit? What does it mean to be Afro-Latina in the United States? If we don’t tell our stories, who will? Clearly no one.
7. Where do you see In Defense of Glitter and Rainbows in the next five years?
I imagine stages full of glitter, coast to coast! A home theater in the theater district and my cast’s names up in lights. Maybe an HBO special. We’re currently working on translating the play into Spanish so we can reach more people. The possibilities are endless. I told you I’m a dreamer so who knows, you may see us live on TV sooner than later.
8. What advice would you give to an aspiring playwright?
Do it. Don’t wait. Don’t ask for permission. Sure, take the class, the workshop. Get the mentor. But don’t wait. Don’t think there will be a moment when you will be ready; it will never come. The only way to do this is to jump fully out of the window and trust that you will fly, float, and levitate. And yes, you’ll be scared shitless, but that’s okay, too. It’s your voice, your story. No one can tell it but you, so write the hell out of it. It matters. You matter.
9. What’s next for True?
Everything! I’m so excited about my what’s next. I’m currently working on what may be my final book of poetry. I have a short film in the works, as well as a second play I’m toying around with. But what’s really in my heart is a surprise. I want to do something very special for those who’ve supported me these last 16 years. I can’t say much about it just yet, but I’m scared to death so it should be good!
10. Where can folks connect with you?
I just launched my website truerodriguez.com. I’m terrible at social media but I’ve been told it’s a must so, you can connect with me on Facebook at facebook.com/VTrueRodriguez, on Instagram @she_the_truest, and on Twitter @always_true2me. You can also find more information about the play at indefenseofglitterandrainbows.com. Also, The Climbing Ivy Project’s website will be up by the end of June so check in at theclimbingivyproject.org soon.