I met Hector Amaya in early 2015 while working at the Alley Theatre. When I found out that the dapper man (he was always dressed in suits) who raised money for the regional theatre, also wrote plays, I wanted to know more. He quickly became my colleague, and we swapped plays and gave each other feedback on our stories. The Garifuna American playwright has scripted over two dozen plays that stem from his observations of the world around him. In addition to writing plays, Amaya scripts short stories and poems, translates and works as a teacher. While in high school, his play Fifty was the winner of the annual Houston Young Playwrights’ Exchange (HYPE) at the Alley Theatre, and three years later it became the first student written play to be produced by University of North Texas’ Theatre Department. He also worked on a translation of Lope de Vega’s sixteenth century play Castelvines y Monteses, which he saw performed by UNT’s Theatre Department in 2005, and two years later by the historic Rose Theatre in London. Nowadays, Amaya uses his keen observations of the world to write stories that speak to the human condition. In between writing and teaching, Hector sat down with me to talk about his experiences creating new work, how his Garifuna identity plays into his writing, and his passion for playwright Edward Albee.
Jelisa Jay Robinson: When did you start writing? Why did you choose to write?
Hector Amaya: I could say that I started writing as a kid, but my first official entry into writing would be in 1996 when I wrote my first play. It was a one act play called Love in the Heart Zone that we did in my high school. It won a competition that year. It was about a brother and sister falling in love but they didn’t know that they were brothers and sisters. I chose to write because I had been reading like crazy. I was really observant. I see people and I imagine things because I don’t know anything about them, and that’s how characters are created. I use my own family, my friends, things that I would like to happen to me and things that happen to me. I love writing. I love creating people on a piece of paper and have them have dialogues with people and also with themselves. So much of life should be self-study. I think that lives are very rich and you have to analyze what’s happening within yourself and reflect on that.
Jelisa: How did you become the first student to have their play receive a full production at University of North Texas? How was that experience?
Hector: In 2003 or 2004, the play was called Fifty and it was actually done at the Alley Theatre’s HYPE festival. I wanted to see this play again and I submitted it to the committee at UNT. I proposed it and had to submit a questionnaire about why I wanted to do it. What would be the value of it to the students? I had an advantage, having had the Alley do my work. The Alley was a passport and there was a visiting professor, Dr. Andrew B. Harris, with whom I went on to do some great things with, he was a very good advocate.
Fifty dealt with a woman who has kept many secrets and on her fiftieth birthday, she decides that she is going to let one out—one that has tormented her. Here is the analysis thing, people are tormented by things. If you go out and ask people, what is really tormenting you, but really tell me the truth. Things may start to come up. Eunice, the main character, stages the meeting with her mother and her friend, and things start to come out: regret, murder, secrets, darkness, and interracial relationships. It’s a drama.
Jelisa: Where does your inspiration come from?
Hector: The inspiration is always the human condition. I am a chronicler of our moral pestilence. I don’t want to be pessimistic, but there are so many tragedies that people go through, and it’s interesting to me to explore that. Because we are human, we’re not perfect. I like to explore the imperfections. I fall in love with the human imperfections. My characters are wackos, but they are also beautiful people. In their tragedy, they rely on poetry, themselves, their mind, society, and their condition. I love to dig deep. In every play I’m always digging. I think I’m more of an archaeologist than a playwright.
Jelisa: You work as a teacher during the day, what do you get from teaching that helps your playwriting? What do you bring to teaching from your playwriting?
Hector: Last year in Kansas City, I saw so much destitution in my students, who largely came from low income homes. I could relate to them and to their stories. I could imagine how they were living at home. Students who didn’t have homework. Students who didn’t have a food. Students who had had deep tragedies. These were little kids, six, seven, and eight years old. It’s a reality. It’s something that stays with me because it’s the other side. What I bring to teaching that I learned in playwriting is structure, organization, discipline, and never giving up. Sometimes they come to us not looking for a smile, but for someone to give them some discipline. My students are characters as well. It’s theatre.
Jelisa: How do you balance your day job as a teacher and your playwriting career?
Hector: I am obsessed with getting the day job right and it takes up a lot of my time. Doing workshops and getting in contact with literary managers takes time and money. Unfortunately, the writing is not paying me right now. Regardless of your talent, it takes time.
Jelisa: Who is your favorite playwright, or writer?
Hector: Edward Albee. One of the things I love about Albee is the dialogue. He is so smart and his characters are so smart. I am obsessed with an Albee play because when I read it goes into the human condition.
Jelisa: What is your writing process like?
Hector: You start with an idea and you’re lucky if you fulfill that idea. When I first started writing, I used to take lots of notes and outlines. I don’t take notes anymore because in the past I have learned that I was fulfilling my obligation to the notes and not to the characters. You don’t feel free as a writer. The characters will take over; they take over on page one. The last full-length I completed…it took me two years because of teaching or this or that. I couldn’t write all the time, but there are times when you get stuck. I keep listening. I try not to go back, unless I’m checking a fact. Maybe the character is from Jamaica on page 16 and on page 25 she’s from Dominican Republic. I go back to check facts.
Jelisa: I’ve read your play Ñ; can you speak about how you explore the imperfections in that piece?
Hector: A little bit of background, the play is set in the future during a time where society has prohibited the use of Spanish. This family is under house arrest and one of their loved ones is taken into custody for breaking the law. One of the characters, Blanca, is as imperfect as she can be. Her thoughts are flawed. She is just an open racist. If you take her out for a few drinks, she will tell you how she feels. I photograph what I hear and what I know. There are some words I had to take out to give myself the liberty to explore what I want to explore. That play is wild and it’s kind of an impossible play. It’s set in the future and it explores such a reality and I wanted people when they are reading it or seeing it that they see the parallels to today. Race, language, and the torture of Latinos in this country and also African Americans. In the play, I write that it’s “everywhere in the united states” because it’s happening all over.
Jelisa: How do you identify?
Hector: That’s a hard question for me because I have so many identities. It’s a deep conflict. Am I Afro-Latino, or am I Afro-Honduran? I am also Garifuna, and I speak Garifuna. That’s a question I’ve always wrestled with because I was born in Honduras, I speak Spanish, and I am Black. I get asked a lot if I’m Black, but If you’re looking at me you can see that I’m Black. Or later I get told, I’m not Black enough. I’ve even been asked if I’m White. One day I was at the UNT cafeteria talking to the lunch lady who was from Colombia in Spanish. She always called me San Martin de Porres. A gentleman behind me tapped me on the shoulder and asked “Where are you from?” I said “I’m from Honduras.” The next question he asked me was “What part of Africa is that?” When it comes to identity what do I say? Usually, when you ask most people “what are you?”, they may use two words. Am I going to use three or four? Am I Afro-Honduran-Latino-Garifuna? That’s four already. So, I’ve been looking for one or two words that summarize all that. The best I can come up with is human.
Jelisa: Do you feel like there is a lack of representation of Afrolatin@ in theatre and why?
Hector: Yes! A lot of it is that there aren’t enough people doing it. You have Octavio Solis, Migdalia Cruz, and Karen Zacarias. You’re doing it and I’m doing it. But it’s not enough. I love Chekhov, Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams, and Eugenie O’Neil, but they are always the ones populating major theatre seasons. There are very few like us on the lineup. There are new play series, workshops, and development. To get your name with Tennessee Williams, it’s going to take time. You have to go through the development—what I call development suicide. Very few people are paying attention to us, unknown names.
You also have this issue of not getting the right people for the roles. If I want to do a Garifuna play, who are they going to give me? One, you have to be able to speak the language. There aren’t that many Garifuna actors. There are some. I’ve thought about coming up with my own company of actors, Afrolatinos and Garifuna people. It would be great writing knowing that there are actors even if a bigger theatre can’t produce your play, you have the people. I always worry about that.
Jelisa: What advice do you have for Afrolatin@, African American, and Latin@ playwrights?
Hector: Tell our stories. Fight for them. They’re underrepresented. If your play doesn’t come with a resume, and by that I mean, if it’s not attached to let’s say a big name, then it’s going to get ignored. Still fight for it. Get it out there, because there is a population that does not have a voice, and you can be that voice.