I met David (pronounced dah-veed) in the fall of 2008. His first words to me were, “Hi, I’m David, we’re going to be best friends.” I remember being terrified.
We’re on the phone. I’m in an Airbnb in Albuquerque. He’s in Harlem in an apartment we used to share.
It’s New Year’s Eve.
I ask him to take me back to before the pandemic.
He says: “I’d just directed Ricardo Pérez González’s ‘Don’t Eat the Mangos’ at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco and we’d gotten rave reviews. And I remember thinking, ‘okay, this is it. This is the moment my career really takes off. And then everything shut down.’”
He laughs at the irony. It’s loud and uninhibited, his laugh. And I can’t help but smile. Even long-distance, David’s energy is infectious.
He continues: “Which is funny because when I was sixteen, I’d told myself that thirty-five was going to be my year—the year I would know myself fully and win my Tony—and I turned thirty-five during rehearsals for that production.
“And the universe, in typical, ‘you think you have a plan – ha!’ fashion, was like… Nope.”
We talk about the act of reflection.
He says: “I mean, what else is there to do while you’re stuck in your apartment for nine months? You re-think. You re-evaluate. And EVERYTHING. Who you are and what you do and how you do what you do…”
I ask if the pandemic has helped at all to bring his artistic values into sharper focus. And there is pride in his voice as he tells me about his father.
“My dad immigrated to the United States from Ecuador. He drove a cab. He learned English. And eventually he graduated from Harvard Law School and started his own practice.
“Growing up, I remember him sharing his client’s stories with us. Most of them were about immigrants, like him. Many were gay or trans, seeking protection from the persecution they faced in their home countries because of how they identified.
“That has always stuck with me. My dad’s belief that everyone has a story and that everyone deserves to have their story validated and advocated for.
“This past year has confirmed that that is at the core of the work I want to do.”
We’ve been chatting for a while when I realize that we haven’t yet talked about the thing I actually called to talk about: his residency.
I say something like, “speaking of the work…” and we transition.
He says: “So I got the January slot, which is crazy because programming-wise you’re bridging the gap between 2020 and 2021. You have the fallout from the election and the resurgence of COVID-19 and Christmas and New Year’s and the inauguration. There’s been so much insanity and sadness and mourning and fear. So I really wanted to focus on the opposite with my programming. I wanted to focus on joy, healing, renewal, rebirth and celebration.”
He tells me that the most meaningful part of the residency has been engaging with artmakers that he loves.
“I’ve always been excited by artists. Like I see something or I see someone do something, and I get obsessed.”
He laughs again and I laugh, too, mostly because I know it’s true; David’s obsessions are legendary.
“It’s this amazing thing to be able to reach out to an artist that maybe you already have a relationship with and maybe you don’t, but you’ve loved what they do for the longest time and you’ve always wanted to work with them in some capacity, or, you know, you’ve just wanted to be in their orbit, you know? And to be able reach out and offer them something, money, yes, but more than that… to be able to offer them an invitation to dream.
“And then they say yes!”
He’s speaking loud and fast now. And after so many years of friendship, I know, even though there are almost 2,000 miles between us, that he’s gesticulating wildly.
“And that’s the part of producing/curating that I love,” he continues. “The part where you get to say to an artist, ‘dream big.’ And especially to an artist of color because so often we’re asked to package ourselves smaller. Smaller and smaller and smaller to get in the door. To fit the usual, the standard, the mold, which is outdated and sexist and racist… all the ‘ists.’
“I love the part where you get to say to an artist, ‘take up more space and I’ll do my best to make sure that the room is big enough. OR, if need-be, I’ll build a new one entirely!’”
I text him the next day.
He’s sent me the bios of the artists that he’s programmed and I’ve spent the last 24 hours rabbit-holing.
My mind is blown.
I say, “first of all… wow.”
And he texts back a happy face emoji.
I ask, “I feel like I GET the why, but in your own words, why these four artists now?”
And he types back:
“They’re all working from the intersection of art and social justice and they’re exploding the notion of ‘theater’ in the process. They’re not creating from a location in opposition to whiteness, but from their own centers, their own truths, and their own liberated realities. When we think about the call for a new American theater, these are the artists that I believe we need to see and hear from. Voices that continue to be marginalized and pushed to the edges whether it be because of their gender, sexuality, or race. And yet, they craft and create their own paths through resilience, resistance, joy and artistry.”
And then he asks, “does that make sense?”
And I text back, “totally.”
An hour later, he texts again:
“REALLY they’re all just badass artists who inspire me.
And I smile and type back, “I can definitely work with that.” ■
About the Author
Harrison David Rivers plays include THE BANDAGED PLACE (Relentless Award), WHEN LAST WE FLEW (GLAAD Award), SWEET (AUDELCO nom), WHERE STORMS ARE BORN (Berkshire Theatre Award nom), THIS BITTER EARTH (Jeff nom, MN Theatre Award) and the musicals FIVE POINTS (MN Theatre Award) and BROADBEND, ARKANSAS (Antonyo and AUDELO noms). He is on the boards of The Movement Theatre Company and the Playwrights’ Center. harrisondavidrivers.com