Swimming while Drowning Earns None Of Its Emotion

Stanley Andrew Jackson III and Reginald Choyce in Stages Repertory Theatre’s production of Swimming While Drowning.
Stanley Andrew Jackson III and Reginald Choyce in Stages Repertory Theatre’s production of Swimming While Drowning. Photo by Amitava Sarkar

Is there anything worse than listening to bad spoken word poetry? The kind with lines kinda like, “You are my Picasso, I am your muse. Even though you’re difficult, you’re the one I would choose.” Poetry about tigers in a cage, a cage full of rage and skies turning from blue to grey. Poetry that keeps insisting, “This is not a poem” as though by repeating this untruth, the work can somehow magically arise in us a deep emotional appreciation.

Turns out there is something worse. Lackluster poetry wrapped in a whisper-thin, cliché-ridden one-act play about LGBT youth living in a homeless shelter. How cliché? Well, enough so that in the final moments of the play, an audience member sitting close to me loudly muttered, “shocker” as the textbook emotional obviousness played out.

Welcome to Swimming While Drowning, Emilio Rodriguez’s play making its debut at Stages Repertory Theater. A two-character story that introduces us to 15-year-olds Angelo (Reginald Choyce) and Mila (Andrew Jackson III), both living in a Los Angeles shelter.

To be clear, it’s not that Rodriguez’s subject matter is amiss. A story about gay teenagers forced to live in a shelter due to homelessness, often the result of family expulsion or violence, is a most worthy narrative subject. One that audiences should be exposed to. Rodriguez also smartly decides to put the spotlight on the teens themselves rather than focusing on the socio/political circumstances the boys are forced to deal with. No audience likes to be lectured to and this thankfully is not a ‘capital I’ issue play.

However, the main problem (and yes, there is more than one) is that the boys we’re supposed to be focussing on are so thinly written that we alter between disbelieving their reactions and becoming bored when we know exactly how they’ll react.

Take Mila, a Black/Latinx shelter veteran who threatens and physically attacks the geeky and quick to please Angelo when he first arrives in their shared room. Mila is bluster and toughness, the kind of gay youth who still calls girls bitches and refers to other gay men as faggots if they act too soft.

How then are we supposed to buy that a mere hours later he’s telling Mila personal stories about loss and hurt? How are we to believe his sudden patience for his annoying roommate who spouts poetry and has an alter ego superhero character? How can we reconcile the friendship/attraction that blossoms between the two? None of this character transformation is earned, and as a result, our disbelief in the pair’s relationship is doomed from the start.

Then take Angelo, a Latinx cross between Urkel and Jim Parson’s Sheldon on the coolness/eagerness scale. Unlike Milla, Angelo doesn’t evolve. He is who he is. Smitten with Mila from the get-go, he spouts his often anachronistic poetry; what modern 15-year-old references Billy Holiday and Chrysler sedan windows that rattle? Angelo may be quirky, but that alone doesn’t earn our affection. Just another example of where Rodriguez forgets to lay down the narrative flypaper for our interest and empathy to stick to.

Problem #2 with Rodriguez’s script is just how much of the plot we see coming from a mile away. Of course one of the boys hustles tricks and gets the crap beat out of him, of course one of them tells a lie about why they’re in the shelter. Of course the meet-cute scenario ends with affection. This is a script that never once surprises. In fact, it feels like an amalgam of LGBT youths’ greatest hits. Not shocking since Rodriguez himself volunteered at LGBT shelters and has based his characters and stories on the young men he met there.

I’ve no doubt these events did and do happen, but a meaningful play is not simply made up of snapshots or crises situations. It is nurtured out of character connection, growth and empathy, things this script is lacking on all fronts.

At the risk of being unsurprising myself, let’s continue the deficit role call and move onto Problem #3 – namely the wonky structure of the play which is half naturalistic, partially fantasy, with dabs of the metaphoric. Look, I’m all about mixing up genres when it works. Naturalism (which has people speaking and acting exactly as they would) could most certainly use an injection of the spiritual or fantastic to rock the decade’s old genre out of its entropy.

But this is a show that mixes naturalism (the boys in their room talking) with metaphor (Angelo, in spotlight, reciting poetry …to who?) to fantasy (Mila, suddenly a poet himself, rapping in monologue about some familial beef that I didn’t quite catch) to the final utterly Hollywood-esque happy ending scene that could have been the finale of any straight to DVD Rom-com.

It’s a lot. And all together it’s a mess.

With a script so faulty, what is Director Alice M. Gatling to do? We’ve seen her draw out devastatingly intense performances on this very stage with her work on the remarkable, We Are Proud to Present. Unfortunately this time all she can seem to manage is not letting things devolve into murkier waters.

Nothing in the script lays the groundwork for true connection between these two young men, and try as she might, Gatling only barely manages to draw out the charisma that justifies the friendship or eventual attraction between these two boys.

What Gatling doesn’t get is any kind of rhythmic repartee between her characters. Both Choyce and Jackson III give ‘acty’ performances, failing to lean into pauses or feel the scenes before blurting out their own lines. The eventual output is earnest, yet lacking the performance polish we’ve come to expect at Stages.

How nice it would be to end on a positive discussion of design, however, even in this case, the mark was missed.

Can a show about an LBGT shelter begin with a more heavy hand than via video screens showing real-life footage of homeless gay youth suffering on the street or protesting with “We are people too” signs? Can a backdrop to a set that consists of only two shelter beds be any more LGBT literal than a plethora of hanging rainbow cloth banners? Can a final, love poetry recital scene play more ridiculously verbatim than in front of portraits of the two young men in question?

We leave not really knowing what Swimming While Drowning is trying to tell us. Rodriguez claims that he wants audiences to get a ‘walk in someone else’s shoes’ experience from this play. Which is a fine goal. But unfortunately, the shoes we walk in here are so poorly made that they keep slipping off before we even get the feel of them.

Swimming While Drowning continues through October 21 at Stages Repertory Theater, 3201 Allen Parkway. For information, call 713-527-0123 or visit $25-$55.
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Jessica Goldman was the theater critic for CBC Radio in Calgary prior to joining the Houston Press team. Her work has also appeared in American Theatre Magazine, Globe and Mail and Alberta Views. Jessica is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association.
Contact: Jessica Goldman