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

Mila and Angelo are two gay teens who end up in an LGBT homeless shelter, and although their connection is a rocky one, they find a degree of common ground in their outsider status. Directed by Alice M. Gatling (We are Proud to Present...) at Stages Repertory Theatre, this play by Emilio Rodriguez was inspired by the playwright’s days in Los Angeles volunteering at some of these shelters. The characters, he says, are an amalgam of the many teens he encountered.

Indeed, the entire play unfolds at such a shelter, festooned with the rainbow motif and furnished with generic metal beds. The crux of the play is the relationship between these two displaced young men, although this relationship is ruptured by monologue and spoken word performance, which are intended to give the audience a sense of how these two characters channel their challenging personal experiences into art.

Although I thought both Angelo (Reginald G. Choyce) and Mila (Stanley Andrew Jackson III) were dressed a little too well for homeless kids, I admit that this is a world I know little about. There is an uncomfortable suggestion that Angelo has not really been beaten by his father and has actually taken the place of another needy kid who needed a space at the shelter, but I am not sure why that suggestion is important other than to underscore the desperation of the characters to get some relief from the challenges of their lives, or to make us ambivalent about our empathy toward Angelo. Mila, a tough-talking, aggressive kid who has some money ostensibly from hustling, is beaten for his sexuality and longs for the father that he never knew. 

At first the two don’t get along, of course, but Angelo sort of wears down Mila’s defenses, and there are even some romantic overtures between the teens.  But the question is, what is this play trying to accomplish? Is this a realistic slice of life from Rodriguez’s knowledge of life in a shelter, or more of a call to action to deal with teen homelessness? Maybe it is both, but the most striking thing about this play are the performances by Choyce and Jackson. The dexterity each shows juggling emotional lines that convey his pain alongside comic comebacks give the play moments of humor and levity. I wouldn’t say that this play has a lot of lines that will stay with me forever, but it was interesting watching these two actors. Both have an excellent sense of timing and delivery—and even though I was not crazy about the spoken word poetry their connection inspired, I think they did the best job possible delivering that poetry in a convincing way.

Both boys are part Latino, but their connection seems less dependent on race—or even sexuality—and more on vulnerability. There are some preachy lines, such as “you’ve got to respect people’s boundaries,” but this play is about transgressing boundaries and finding connection, as ephemeral as those connections might be. There is an aspect of gritty realism, and a reminder that these kids are both physically punished for their identities as well as psychologically affected. But there does not seem to be a suggestion of a solution to these difficulties.  Being able to write and perform an original poem doesn’t capture a realistic response to the social problems this play brings up that such struggles are where much art comes from. Maybe that’s the point? Not sure.

The most haunting thing for me about this play are the hardscrabble lives of Angelo and Mila—even if in different ways. You must be a “genius, “or, “Sometimes you have to use people,” just to survive. There is a story about a miscarriage, references to “all the babies that are never born,” and even pronouncements that “you don’t need wings to be an angel.” But it is hazy what they all add up to. These two boys, one aggressive, one passive-aggressive, connect over reading a book, which seems unlikely, but I guess anything is possible in the world of the shelter. At least it gives way to a discussion about “passion.” In the end, the lack of stability in this world is confronted by bronzing feelings into the spoken word poem, but even after that, the question that lingers is one that hangs over the whole play, which is “What’s the answer?”  Even with the interesting actors in this play, the audience leaves feeling as if there isn’t one, and that there might not be for a very long time.

Thru Oct. 21. Tickets from $25. Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Pkwy. 713-527-0123. More info and tickets at stagestheatre.com.

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