T. Geronimo Johnson’s novel Welcome to Braggsville comes to the stage with a world-premiere adaptation by Josh Aaseng and Daemond Arrindell at Book-It Repertory Theatre, and local actor Justin Huertas is excited to play a part in the production.
“I’ve always wanted to do a show with Book-It!” Huertas said. “I love Josh, and I’ve loved getting to know [Book-It co-artistic directors] Myra Platt and Jane Jones as the host of Book-It’s annual fundraiser Guilty Pleasures.”
For Huertas, the arts have been a lifelong passion. “I’ve been in school plays since elementary school but focused more seriously on playing cello in high school,” he said. “I got accepted to Pacific Lutheran University for Cello Performance just before starring in the Spring Musical my senior year of high school.”
This was the turning point for Huertas. “I played Major-General Stanley in The Pirates of Penzance, and I was costumed in this colorful military uniform, glued-on mutton chops, and a drawn-on mustache,” he said. “Every night, I entered with a bright rainbow umbrella and got an applause on first appearance every night, and that’s when I decided I wanted to be a stage actor forever.”
Since then, Huertas has been pursuing that goal through a variety of avenues. “Being an actor is in line with any sort of contract work,” he said. “You’re constantly thinking ahead to the next opportunity and making sure you’re always busy.”
He has found Seattle to be a fertile creative environment. “The awesome thing about my work in Seattle theatre is it isn’t limited to acting,” he said. “I also compose music and write plays, so my time between acting contracts can be filled with even more art that I’m passionate about.”
This creative work has paid off. “I wrote a musical that I also perform in called Lizard Boy,” Huertas said. “That was commissioned by and premiered at Seattle Repertory Theatre, and it has since had a second production in San Diego at Diversionary Theatre and two New York readings at Playwrights Horizons.”
Back in Seattle, these efforts resulted in an invitation from Welcome to Braggsville adapter and director Josh Aaseng. “I had actually never heard of this book before!” Huertas said. “Josh sent me information when he asked me to audition, and I was so intrigued by the premise.”
Huertas says he was immediately drawn to the book. “I love the way Johnson satirized not only how we perceive racism and racist people but also these self-important liberal millennials who think pointing an iPhone at a problem is automatically fixing the world,” he said. “And I definitely belong to that group sometimes! It just made me really think about what I’m putting into the world during this difficult time and whether or not it’s as productive as I think it is.”
In the show, Huertas plays the role of Louis, one of four college students who embroil themselves in a political intervention that goes terribly awry. “I think what I connect to the most is his sense of humor,” Huertas said of his character Louis. “He’s so irreverent and self-deprecating in very uncomfortable and hilarious ways.”
But the character of Louis is more than just a class clown. “In joking and pointing out Asian stereotypes that he’s been judged by and compared to, he’s breaking even more American conventions of Asian-ness and challenging the types of Asian characters that American media shows us simply by existing and owning his complicated existence,” Huertas said. “That kind of visibility is extremely important to me as an Asian-American actor.”
Because much of the play takes place in the Southern United States and centers on Civil War reenactments that recur annually in many Southern communities, social issues are front and center. “Race is a major theme in this play, and one of our adaptors Daemond led an amazing workshop for our cast on race and identity,” Huertas said. “That was an amazing experience that really put us all on the same page, gave us vocabulary we can share to keep the conversation going, and bring us all into an even safer space to talk about these issues as themes in the show.”
A major lesson has been that race and ethnicity will never be simple issues in the United States. “On a personal level, it really taught me a lot about the challenges I have and will face as a minority, and about the privileges I have that I often take for granted,” he said.
Following Welcome to Braggsville, Huertas will focus on writing some new musicals, as well as returning to his work in Lizard Boy. “I’m continuing to develop that musical and follow wherever it leads me.”
‘Welcome to Braggsville’ runs from June 7 to July 2 at Book-It Repertory Theatre, Center Theatre, 305 Harrison Street, Seattle.