Seven questions with Cornelio “Coky” Aguilera of IN THE TIME OF THE BUTTERFLIES

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The lone male in Stageworks’ In the Time of the Butterflies talks about strong women, strong plays and #MeToo. A report by Cathy Salustri for Creative Loafing Tampa.

Cornelio Aguilero plays the only man in Stageworks’ In the Time of the Butterflies. Aguilero — Coky to his friends — gave us a lot to think about and process with this Seven questions with…, making us want to see it more than we did before.

How have you approached preparing for your role in In the Time of the Butterflies?

The show is an adaptation of a book that was written by Julia Alvarez as a “historical fictionalized” account of a true story from the Dominican Republic; in other words, we had our work cut out for us! The book had to be picked up, and thankfully, it was an easy read and helped my understanding of the relationships between the different characters, giving some wonderful backstories as well.

However, while attending quite a few book clubs in order to promote the show, I realized how much it was being enjoyed by all of these potential, audience members and I was immediately nervous about our being able to match/compete with this great book when staging the play. Especially since I was taking on six different Dominican characters, spanning from the late 1940s to the present! What if I couldn’t do these “men from the story” justice, let alone make them different enough so the audience could believe I was the specific character being called for during a particular moment in the show?

The DJ serves as a narrator-bridge to these worlds through three different time periods, and the challenge has been to capture the essence of what would have been heard on the radio, while helping tell the story in a manner that will be palpable to the audience. (Not to mention our hardest critics, the lovers of the book!) Music plays a large part in this show and it was a pleasure sifting through the history of the DR, especially as it related to the way radio and television was broadcasted during the era of Trujillo, and how this affected the kind of music that prevailed during this time. (Especially since I’m a huge fan of bachata and reggaetón, two Spanish-speaking styles originating in this country.) I would be remiss if I didn’t mention and thank our wonderful Sound Designer, Maggie Council, who helped created the amazing musical background for us to “play in.”

With the other three characters, including the infamous “bad guy,” the challenge was trusting myself and our beloved co-director, Jorge Acosta, to make these characters different, real, human beings. We have all been in arguments where we might have been on the wrong side of things, but we never think we are wrong. Some of us will never be brave enough to even partially admit being wrong, ever. Truillo ended up being one of these people.

Has it been mentioned we do this show both in English and Spanish, depending on the day one comes to see it? Another obstacle was getting the Dominican accent down in Spanish. I wanted the story being represented to ring as true as possible for all of our audiences and I’ve been watching a lot of Dominican movies online so I can constantly hear their sound. (To my surprise, I have been introduced to another genre of really good films!) Every type of Spanish has a particular “song melody” to it; my hope is I will have brought enough of this accent to color my characters so our audience will believe they are of the world we say they are!

That was probably way more of an answer than needed, so I’ll work to keeping the rest “short-winded.”

Tell us about the Dreamer’s Teatro Crew and the Farmworkers Self-Help Organization.

DTC is a wonderful group of “Dreamer” students from Dade City that I have had the pleasure of working with for the past three years. It is run under the auspices of the Farmworker’s Self-Help Organization, led by Margarita Romo, a treasure to that city … a woman I consider to be the “Dolores Huerta” of that community since the 80s as she continues to fight for farmworker’s rights, the majority Spanish-speaking, and offers education, aid and resources for an essential portion of this society’s workforce, which continue to be relegated as outcasts, especially as seen by the current administration.

DTC organizes, improvises, creates, writes, rehearses and presents original pieces of theatre that speak to their experiences and perspectives, for their community and the one at large. We have submitted, and been chosen to perform, for the Tampa Bay Theatre Festival for the past two years.

It’s wonderful; I get to pass on what I love, the art of theatre, with students … like I was. And thankfully, they keep coming back for more!

What strong women have helped make you who you are today?

My abuelita Alicia, my mother Hilda, my favorite teacher Ms. Fanshaw, my sister Graciela, my partner Vonzell, my “abue” away from home Margarita Romo and my “drama mamma” Anna Brennen; it amazes me how lucky I am to have known them. In fact, these women may have surpassed the number of strong men I have in my life, which is unbelievable considering the kind of society we have lived in and the struggles they have had to endure in comparison to them. I guess that has been part of what has made them such strong, central figures for me.

One of my favorite quotes is also one of yours: Prefiero morir de pie que vivir de rodillas (loosely translated, “I’d rather die on my feet than live on my knees”). Can you give our readers some context of how that speaks to you personally?

It has been very important for me to stay true to who I am, even when it’s the hardest to do so, no matter what the circumstance. The strong women that helped raise me a certain way, did so for a reason. To negotiate this, would be to negotiate them and what they stood for, ultimately negotiating my existence and potentially erasing it. The quote reminds me of this promise and how the consideration of an alternative is never an option.

It seems like this play would speak to many of your personal beliefs and is more than role for you; could you tell our readers more?

The Mirabal sisters could have avoided their tragic fate; what they stood for was far more important than negotiating their principles for their lives, even when they had families to tend to. I believe it is what toppled the Trujillo regime, the reason they have been hailed as martyrs, and the reason we are doing their story.

You were also in The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity with Stageworks; how are the rehearsals for a play like this different — are they more serious, or are you and the cast able to break away from the import of the script to still joke in between scenes?

There is way more “joking” with this show for a couple of reasons: the material is so heavy that our connection with one another while tackling the script has created a wonderful bond. At least four of us have worked with another in the past, thanks to Stageworks Theatre, so that helped.

Not to mention we are all Spanish-speaking actors that have been trying to keep up a consistent presence within this Tampa theatrical community. We have all “been there,” if you will, which has allowed for a much stronger connection; we get one another, know the sacrifices we have had to make in order to be on “that stage,” we check in with one another from time to time (especially to support one another’s projects or make one another aware of auditions, etc.), and have created somewhat of a support structure for each other.

Lastly, we were blessed to have had Karla Hartley and Jorge Acosta directing, who could be mistaken for brother and sister (when they are not), and that relationship permeated the whole process and team, from day one.

You’re definitely outnumbered in this cast — it’s women-heavy. What can men learn from this play, do you think?

While we, as “men,” may not understand even a fraction of the sentiments represented within mobilizations such as the #MeToo movement, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t, or that we never will, or that it just doesn’t apply to us specifically. We need to be better about “listening differently” and recognizing the role our gender and actions have played, especially with respect to that of our predecessors, in the context of what our grandmothers, mothers, and sisters have endured for far too long. Because it’s not about us anymore; our “time is up.” And that is OK. In fact, it is amazing.

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