Cristian Avila’s “DADDY’S BOY:” a play about sexuality, family, and being who you are

Cristian Avila’s poignant and timely play refuses to let us be complacent, urging us to confront issues facing the LGBTQ community, cyber-bullying, and the struggle we all face to be authentic to our selves. “Daddy’s Boy” is deeply moving, giving us access to the life of Milo, a 17-year-old national wrestling champion. As the play begins we are immediately sucked into a wrestling match, watching Milo face off against his childhood best friend J.T. It soon becomes clear that this is far more than a physical match and that there is a high stakes battle of values taking place as well.

Milo and J.T. face off. Photo from an earlier version of the play performed at Post Theatre Company at Long Island University CW Post. Foreground: Cody Petit (wrestler in pink), Jeffrey Tierney (wrestler in black). Background: (Chorus) Tyler Matos, Paige Borden, Melanie Overfield, Morgan Green. Photo by Mia Isabella Aguirre.

Milo identifies as queer and J.T. represents the homophobia of Milo’s Texas hometown that his two fathers fled for more liberal Manhattan. As Milo is about to win the match, J.T.’s homophobic dad screams out “faggott,” which serves to fuel Milo even more. Milo’s victory sashay and pink singlet are recorded and the footage goes viral, prompting a media backlash that triggers a horrific assault on his life. This tragic event and Milo’s bravery drive his “straight acting” dads to face their fears of their own homosexuality and to come together to support their son as he embarks on the long road to forgiveness and healing. Avila constantly defies expectations and turns stereotypes on their heads to explore the origins of deeply rooted mindsets. For instance, he humanizes the bully J.T., giving us a look into the struggles and abuse he faces growing up. Avila says we tend to vilify the bully without looking into who they are or their family history, and that the play is really a story about Milo and J.T., who are both daddy’s boys.

Before the match. Photo from an earlier version of the play performed at Post Theatre Company at Long Island University CW Post. L-R: Cody Petit, Iris Seaman, Jeffrey Tierney. Photo by Mia Isabella Aguirre.

Avila has a BA in Dramatic Art from UC Berkeley and he came to New York City after graduating. He has now been in NYC two years and after working in hospitality knew that his passion still lay with theater and writing. So he moved on to the next adventure, attending graduate school to get his MA in theater and extremely happy to be doing what he loves. For a while had wanted to write a play about high school and bullying, and this led him to “Daddy’s Boy.” He says the play is a marriage of his research on gender and cyber-bullying, as well as inspired by real life events. Since much of the process of bringing a play to the stage is new to him, he says he wants to learn all he can. He views the script as a draft and collaborative effort that is ever-changing and evolving. He is constantly working to improve it and incorporate the feedback of others in a way that involves each person’s voice in the life of the play.

While talking with playwright and director Avila I am impressed by just how intricately thought out and full of clever connections “Daddy’s Boy” is. He says the wrestling theme underlying the show not only serves as a metaphor for wrestling with ideas, but also is apt because being a gay athlete today often leads to a negative public response and is an area of acceptance we need to make major strides in. Also, wrestling is an appropriate choice because as Avila says, it is “one of the most homoerotic sports but also one of the most homophobic ones.” The stage takes the form of a wrestling arena flanked by two benches, with whistle blows ending the scenes. He says framing the show within a sports arena constantly encourages us to ask if there is a winner in this situation or if there can be while so many people continue to struggle to be accepted for who they are.

One of the show’s most unique and creative devices is a Chorus that is on stage the entire show and that responds to the dialogue, interrupts, and even gets involved in the action. Avila describes the Chorus as a “conveyor belt,” with the larger group precisely shifting and readjusting to release characters into a scene. This dynamic entity comes to represent the voice of society, the conscience of the characters, and even a Home and Away fan base that embodies liberal and conservative politics. The Chorus is also meant to evoke the ancient Greek choruses that would tell stories through song, part of an underlying theme in the show of drawing from Greek tradition. For instance, the protagonist Milo’s name is taken from the first great wrestler in ancient Greece, and the structure the story takes is modeled after the trajectory of the tragic hero, with the Greek idea of catharsis being the end goal of the show.

The Chorus watches on. Photo from an earlier version of the play performed at Post Theatre Company at Long Island University CW Post. L-R: (foreground) Cody Petit, Iris Seaman, Jeffrey Tierney. Chorus (background): Tyler Matos, Paige Borden, Melanie Overfield, Morgan Green, Meredith Binder, Christopher Balbi. Photo by Mia Isabella Aguirre.

The Chorus also transforms into a vehicle of violence at times, speaking to society’s and the media’s role in perpetuating inequality. In an extremely powerful scene, the Chorus becomes the voice of social media. We sit in a completely dark room, the faces of Chorus members illuminated only by their phones, and they take turns reading real posts that Avila found online about internet sensation Brendan Jordan, who like Milo had a viral video that received a variety of responses and even backlash from the gay community. The role of the media in constructing society’s opinions about gender and in “forcing codified behavior on people” is important to Avila and he feels much of this power resides in the anonymity of the web. People can cyber-bully and even abuse others online and escape culpability, and he feels there needs to be increased recognition of the hurtful and negative space this fosters. Avila ultimately sees theater as an experience, and so scenes like this one that turn the Chorus into a mirror of ourselves ask us what we would do in this situation and what role we want to play in this complex web.

It is hard not to be inspired by Avila’s commitment to tackling social issues through theater. He says that theater has a way of sparking social awareness and change in a way that really connects with people, and that’s what makes it so worthwhile. In working on the show’s premiere for the Dream Up Festival, he teamed up with the Tyler Clementi Foundation, which works to combat cyber-bullying and LGBTQ inequality. This partnership comes with a hope of getting legislation passed for cyber-bullying, and members of the Foundation will be speaking at the show’s opening night at the festival on August 30, with all ticket proceeds going to the Foundation.

Milo is idealistic and represents hope for progress in the face of tragedy, and that is ultimately what Avila wants to leave audiences with. Milo embraces all traits, saying, ‘this is me, and I don’t have to be a certain way.’ This attitude not only inspires the other characters in the show to think about their own identities but also empowers the audience to celebrate who they are. However, society is not as evolved as Milo and there’s still a lot of progress to be made. The violence enacted towards young people and the pressure put on them to conform to certain molds leads to depression and even suicide. Avila says that it was extremely difficult for him to write the violence that takes place in the show but he knows it was necessary to do justice to the people who feel trapped and silenced and whose stories need to be told. “Daddy’s Boy” takes a step forward by tackling issues going on right now and that aren’t going to disappear unless more people get involved and work to bring about progress. Avila hopes his show can play a part in getting cyber-bullying legislation passed and that it will spark a dialogue. He said his next goal for “Daddy’s Boy” is to bring it on a college tour and get different academic departments involved in an interdisciplinary discussion about these issues to try and illuminate the path towards meaningful change.

Playwright and Director Cristian Avila

By Maia Sacca-Schaeffer

Theater for the New City’s Dream Up Festival will present the world premiere of “Daddy’s Boy” August 30 to September 6 at the Community Theater.

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