Interview by Kimber Monroe, Photography by Joana Meurkens
As the new Editor of Mixed Mag’s Theater, Film and TV section, I wanted to have my first stab at featuring someone who I not only consider an upcoming giant in the industry, but a fellow peer. As an BIPOC actor and writer myself, I understand the necessity of consistently recognizing and uplifting the work of other POCs in media. This industry for many, is a combination of unwavering commitment, vulnerability and rejection. The chances of success are slim for the general, and even slimmer for POC involved. We have to put twice as much energy and effort as our non-POC peers in order to reap the same rewards. So yes, it’s important for game to recognize game. And I knew the first person (of many) I wanted to highlight was my peer and dear friend Jose Useche.
Jose (he/him/él if you’re speaking Spanish) is a Queer-Latinx actor and writer with Peruvian and Columbian roots. Jose and I grew up together, both Musical Theater majors at the Professional Performing Arts School in New York City. High school is weird BUT if you can come out with a couple life friends, you can look back at those four years with some fondness. Twelve years later, and Jose is still as positive, authentic and hardworking as he was when I met him on the first day of freshman year. It’s amazing, to be brief.
When Jose and I spoke, I wanted to speak about his work, specifically his recent Broadway debut and his web series, SLUT! But as we talked, the conversation turned into something deeper and more enlightening than I could’ve thought up: What is the line between this career and living your damn life? Where do we begin to draw the boundaries for our careers? And can we just create work about our lives that aren’t always about the struggles that we consistently face as POC in the world? Instead of continuously singing Jose’s praises, I will just let y’all read our conversation.
When did you first begin acting? What drew you into this world?
I lived in Ohio in 8th grade and there was this loophole where you could get out of gym if you did tech on a show. And I was like, “word, I’ll be doing that” and I did lights for You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown. That was my first love. You know how everyone has that thing where they were like, “… and then I REALLY started giving a shit about theater”? For whatever reason, it was that show for me. And I listened to the soundtrack religiously, I learned the choreography… the whole nine yards. And then I had to move back home to New York because my mom was coming back from The Congo. And me being the absolute pathological liar that I am, I told all of my friends from Ohio that the reason I was moving to New York was because I got into a performing arts high school and I was gonna “Be Somebody”. It was over for those white hoes and off I went. Cut to the summer before the New York City high school hell, I came into my mom’s room and I was like, “I made a big mistake, I fucked up and I lied to everyone and I told them I got into this fancy school and they’re gonna know because Facebook exists.” And my mom was like, “okay do you want to go to a school like this?” And I was like, “actually I kinda do.” So we went to the Lincoln Center Performing Arts Library together, we’re looking through sheet music and “How-To Audition” books, piecing it together. My cousin knew someone who was on Broadway once. He came in and coached me on my monologue, and then I got in PPAS and the rest is history.
Sounds like manifestation to me! So after your PPAS stint, you studied at Ithaca College. What came out of that program for you and how did it further inform you of who you were as an artist?
It’s funny because I always tell people that Ithaca didn’t necessarily change my relationship with acting. It didn’t make me fall in love with it more and I would even say it didn’t necessarily make me better as an artist. But I do think Ithaca REALLY made me change my relationship with myself. PPAS (thankfully) never made me question the fact that I wasn’t white or that I was queer. I never thought about, “is it a risk to do this monologue because it’s a gay piece?” Or like, “is it weird that I’m playing Cliff Bradshaw because I’m light brown?” That never occurred to me because that was the environment that PPAS was. So ironically when I got to Ithaca, suddenly I began to hear sentiments such as, “oh you only got cast in that piece because it’s the Latino play”. And I was like, “HUH?” I never had considered that THAT was like either a hindrance or a benefit. You know what I mean?
Ithaca was also where I started taking classes on racial theory, and that’s when I got really into the history of the oppression of non-white folks in EVERY aspect of life, educationally-speaking, politically-speaking, financially-speaking. I had that realization that where I’d landed and where I came from was truly a blessing and a feat. I realized that for someone like me, it was the exception, not the rule to be in a program like Ithaca. To be at a PWI on scholarship, studying theater – it’s like not something that’s granted to a lot of folks of Color. And unfortunately so, because we are just as good if not better than the people who grew up and could easily access premier dance classes, vocal classes, Master classes, private coaches. That’s when I realized that the odds were really stacked against me and how that spoke to… God knows what – my tenacity or my sheer luck. But that is how Ithaca changed things for me.
How does your identity intersect with your art?
On a good day, I just know that when I get into the room, my identity is my superpower. I know that it’s what makes me an asset and what makes my story important. But when the little green monster, or whoever you wanna call it – self doubt – creeps up, that’s when I start questioning myself. It’s nebulous, you know like, “you’re not Latino enough”, “you’re too Latino”, “you’re not queer enough”, “you’re too femme”, “nobody would ever believe you as a straight person” and so on and so forth. It’s sad that the former, what I described, is not what I’m always thinking. But I know that when I’m in the right room with people who are open-minded and, hopefully, come from a similar marginalized background, that’s when I know it’s my superpower and what I was born to do. I’m here to tell stories and I’m here to uplift people like me and hopefully people that come from an even more marginalized group than I’m a part of.
How do you face those said-challenges? I’ve found that as an actor and person, we start to become more attuned with those voices that come up telling us that we’re not enough, we don’t belong etc. How do you begin to challenge those thoughts when they arise?
Honestly… fuck. I think the first two things that come to mind are: 1. When you do finally find a person or a piece or something that speaks to you and that reminds you that there is a space for you, to hold tightly onto that. I think about other Queer-Latinx people in media and I quite literally just tell myself, “that could be me.” And that’s corny but that’s why representation is important. And that’s for not only children or future generations to come, but for the adults who currently ask themselves, “does this industry give a shit about me?” And hopefully, if there’s someone that reminds you of you, you can look to that.
And then #2. Frankly friends. Some people will say community or chosen family, but I think that 100% it’s my friends. My friends reminds me that there’s life well beyond the industry and that sometimes the industry isn’t ready for you. And that sometimes, you have to make your own industry and that’s there’s simply other things. There’s dancing, eating good food, spending quality time with people, sex, good music – it’s not all about, “am I gonna be on television?”
So speaking about creating your industry – let’s get into your journey as writer! When did you first start?
I didn’t come to writing from a place of, “I wanna take agency of my life and create work for myself”. I started writing quite literally just to make myself laugh. I was at a point where I was like… well, who knows what I was sad about, probably a boy (laughs). And I just wanted to write whatever came up that felt funny or that I thought was interesting. And from there, it evolved into a deeper exploration of myself, maybe the more inappropriate parts of myself or the more sexual parts of myself. Maybe even the more aggressive or scary parts of myself. And then I got a little taste of the public’s response, if you will. I do feel like from there I started to play this very unhelpful “how many boxes of marginalization can I check” game where I was like, “okay I’m going to write a character that’s disabled, trans and Asian. And then I’m gonna write a character that’s asexual and Black and fat.” And it became inauthentic and ironically, it became something that I was doing to appease whiteness. And so, I was like, “someone will buy this pilot if they can’t say no to it because there’s so many marginalized people in this”. Ironically, after gaining more skill and exposure and learning a little more about myself and the stories I want to tell, I kind of circled back to the original thought that got me into writing – what makes me laugh and what parts of myself do I want to explore? And THEN I can add in that question of, “Whose stories have I not seen and does that interest me?” I’m not asking myself if it’s marketable but rather, “is someone’s story being overlooked and can I help tell it in an authentic way?”
I think about SLUT! (the web-series that I wrote) and how I was driving in all these different lanes, maybe at like 15 MPH. Once I wrote 30 Days in Bayside, which was the pilot that got me signed and meetings with production companies, I figured out what story I truly had agency over and what was my right to tell. From there, I was able to drive 80 MPH in that lane because I was writing what I know and not writing to be someone’s savior.
You’ve continued writing and acting, auditioning, switching representation – all while in a pandemic. What keeps you curious and persistent about your artistry?
Oooo! Watching TV, definitely. Just seeing people who are hopefully good at it doing the thing that you want to be doing. And friends. More life! Less deadlines and forcing yourself out of sacrificing life for career.
What is your dream role in TV, Film and/or Theater?
This question brings me back to what I was saying about when you see someone doing the thing that you’ve always dreamt of doing and holding onto that feeling. Julio Torres is a Queer-Latinx comedian and writer who I WORSHIP. He has this ridiculous show on HBO called Los Espookys. It’s all in Spanish. It’s like a horror-comedy and any role in that show… I would punch a baby to be in it. I LOVE that show.
Any advice for aspiring POC writers and/or actors?
Release the need to appeal to whiteness. Don’t sacrifice yourself because you’re feeling impatient. Good work comes from a place of calm. And lastly, have fun. Not just auditioning, but have fun with your friends and family. I think about this off-Broadway show I booked and the schedule conflicted with this trip to Peru that my mom had planned. I’m sure the show opened some doors for me, like an audition I got called into it later and it definitely swung the pendulum of my career a little… but sometimes I find myself wishing I just took the trip. Approach the industry with a trust of, “it will all come together when the time is right” and you’ll stop saying no to other things. Put yourself first, in every aspect.
Jose’s essay series, “mariconcito”, is published in Mixed Mag and can be found below!