AZ Espinoza: Liberation for Everyone

This week’s Portrait is an award winning playwright, performer, director, dramaturg, activist and theater magician. AZ Espinoza is the co-founder of theBlackBestFriend, a producing collective that uplifts Black multiplicities. They have been a theater educator at the Wilma Theater, Temple University, Haverford College, and the University of the Arts, and they are a student of liberation everywhere, and for everyone. Their current project is a play by Alice Childress that’s being presented as part of the Fringe Festival. I knew the playwright sounded familiar and when I googled her name I saw a list of her plays, including “Wine in the Wilderness” the play being presented by theBlackBestFriend along with PAC (Philadelphia Artists’ Collective). The reason it sounded so familiar was because I was IN the show at Emerson College, my alma mater! D’oh! It’s a powerful show and I’m excited to see this presentation of it. I had a moment to speak to AZ between rehearsals and reminisce about the theater as I learned more about them.

Where are you from?

I grew up in Baltimore. I’m first generation so “from” is a big word for me. 

Tell me a little about the family.

My mother is Venezuelan and my dad grew up in the Caribbean and in Brooklyn. Baltimore is a small Philadelphia in a lot of ways, but I think if you’re not a multi-generational resident, it can feel a little… I don’t know, isolating. Philadelphia has always felt like more of a home for me than Baltimore ever did. Maybe because of where I was in my life when I found Philly but I will say that the similarities that I found between Baltimore and Philly endeared Philly to me in a way that has made it feel like home. 

What were you like as a kid?

Honestly, now that I’ve had time to figure it all out, I find that I’m pretty much the same now as I was back then. I was very community oriented, which meant that I loved school. I loved magic, which at the time for me meant that I loved church and read a lot of books. I was very kinesthetic, which meant at the time that I was an athlete though I was pushed towards athletics in a lot of ways. It means different things to me now. And I was, and this feels connected to growing up in Baltimore, I was very concerned with inequities. At the time in Baltimore, and still now, they had a very large population of people who were unhoused, and I was really freaked out by it. Just the fact that it was happening and not treated like it was an emergency really upset me. So yeah, that was me as a kid. Personality-wise, I had a lot of energy, I was mischievous but didn’t like to get in trouble. I was also very sensitive. 

What did you think you were going to grow up to be?

The first thing that I ever wanted to do was to be an actor, and acting is what got me into other areas of my art form that are a little more consistent for me. I didn’t grow up in an environment that understood the ways that it could be a sustainable life path. I think that a lot of the skills that I presented made people think that I would go into politics, which meant I thought I would go to law school. I went through several different areas that could be an entryway into politics and none of them made me happy, so I went back to the original desire. 

Where did you go to college?

For undergrad I went to Harvard, because I was trying to be a politician. After that, I spent a year in London and studied media and communication at SOAS, the School of Oriental and African studies, which is a pretty rough name, but it’s part of the University of London. They exclusively study the global south so whatever academic department you’re in, everything is through the lens of the de-colonial spaces. That was a fascinating year. When I came to Philly, I got a Masters degree in theater at Villanova. 

My goodness, you were not slacking! 

[Laughing] No, I’ve been around a few blocks.

What’s a fun family memory?

I didn’t grow up in a religious household, but I was super into it because I liked magic. As I got older, the less important it felt, which was a complicated journey probably too long for this interview, but the observation of Catholic traditions became incredibly important to me as a kid. I think it helped me to do things here that were being done by people in my extended family overseas and made me feel connected that way. I loved Three Kings Day. I’d make nativities for every Christmas; there were particular foods that were different for Christmas than for New Year’s or Noche Buena that I paid attention to. I loved the ritual and traditions of the holidays. Of course since then I’ve learned and unlearned a lot about religion that has swayed my thoughts, but it still holds fond memories. 

When did you start to actively pursue acting?

I was living overseas and was working as an ESL teacher. They used theater as a way to teach English. I was hired by a network of people who were also performers, and soon I started to freelance as a teacher which allowed me to freelance as an artist, and that’s how it started. By my mid 20’s I was an educator who specialized in the performing arts. I’m still an educator, but the ratio changed, and pursuing the degree at Villanova was very much because I realized, “Okay, this is definitely what I’m supposed to be doing and I’ve never studied it formally.” I’m glad because it brought me to Philly. 

What was something that was the most rewarding or meaningful theatrical moment for you and what was the craziest?

I would venture to say that this project that we’re doing for Fringe is the most meaningful. I met this play in a very personal way, it spoke to me very directly so there’s a lot to be said about that. I did have an acting role in a show called “Peaceable Kingdom” when I first got to Philly. It was meaningful because it made me feel invited into a community and introduced me to some of my most lasting collaborators. It was also my portal into Philly’s queer community, which has been invaluable to me as a human, so I’m very grateful for that and I got to play William Penn which was very satisfying because the play did a good job of confronting and subverting historical narratives, and it felt good to play the dude on top of city hall! I was one of two human characters, the rest of the cast played various animals or trees, etc. In the story, William Penn had a huge crush on Tamanend, that wasn’t reciprocated. It was fun, the play asked me to try things differently which allowed me to grow a lot. 

Let’s talk about “Wine in the Wilderness”.

Yes, in the directing and producing of it, I’m learning how well written this play is. We are going into tech rehearsals this week and this is usually the time where the challenges in a script keep you up at night as a director. That’s not happening this time, this play is so clear. One reason I was so drawn to it is that there’s no code switching. It’s very rare to see that. Even as a playwright, I’m always conscious of who is going to be in the room when my plays are produced. Alice Childress wrote reality with no self consciousness about it and theBlackBestFriend is committed to creating theatrical experiences that are unmediated by the white gaze. Her willingness to do that in 1969 allows us to do this play in 2022 and realize how many of the conversations that we’re having today and the ways that we’re not listening to each other haven’t changed. Her writing is a gift.

Tell me a little about theBlackBestFriend?

It’s a producing collective that I founded with a friend and collaborator named Brie Knight. I wanted to write a play called “BlackBestFriend” and because of the pandemic and my own feelings of isolation and the different types of racism that were being exposed and discussed in 2020, it didn’t feel like a play I could write alone, so I invited some friends and collaborators to devise it with me. They are Brie, Nikki Brake-Sillá, and Severin Blake. On Juneteenth in 2021 we did a virtual performance of it which invited recruits to “join the revolution in freeing stereotypical Black best friends from their caricature, traumatic fates.”

TheBlackBestFriend collective came out of Brie and me recognizing that we wanted to keep doing this. And what this is is curating theatrical experiences for Black people and to provide a creative hub for Black joy, resilience, and community. We prioritize radical accessibility to Black stories. We haven’t worked out the logistics yet, but one of the ways we’re planning to do that is by having a pay what you can option for global majority people to provide that accessibility to this show. As a collective, we want to amplify the voices of Black artists — no matter what they need to say. Without assumptions or boxes about what Black people are supposed to say in their art. So if you’re Black and you have something you want to make, we’re interested in it. Keeping in mind that we’re a small group, two working artists with day jobs, so we’re limited in what we can do! But we’ve been kind of delighting in our smallness, it allows us to get creative. 

Tell me a little about your journey in the LGBTQ world.

I’m a transmasculine feminist, which for me means that I’m a transgender person for whom feminism was at the root of my own liberation and political practices and lived experiences on this earth. 

What was your coming out experience?

I’ve had a couple. I’d say the first coming out experience was coming out as an artist. Being a child of immigrants, it felt like something that was an unspoken, forbidden career choice. It was the flat earth with a cliff at the end, so once I did that, I guess I knew what it felt like to have something in my life I knew I needed despite any disapproval. That in turn made me question other parts of my life and where my needs were and weren’t being met. 

I guess because I was an autonomous adult, so to speak, when I came out about having a queer sexuality… I won’t say it wasn’t hard, but because it was later in life it felt almost owed to me. It was like, “God damn, you know, at this point I should probably just do what I want.” But coming out as transgender was incredibly difficult and I’m still navigating it. I think it was difficult because of the tragedy of realizing that it was always true. Having to reconnect with a reality of one’s self that you couldn’t access for a long time. Looking back across the years and seeing my trans-ness at every year of my life but not having recognized it. 

If someone had just told me what these things meant… I might have done this a while ago! It’s an experience of grief and rebirth. It’s a really complicated combination of both things. But it’s also exhilarating and feels great and I like finally being myself. It’s also something that’s taught me the violence of normativity. Transphobia is very real and there’s the fear and the threat, and the fact that it’s endemic enough that you don’t know where it lies. You could live a cis presenting life with people and not know what their reaction might be to your trans identity. You have to invent 7 wheels just to leave the house. There’s so little visibility of trans lives. It was never a conversation in my world, and once I was in a world with that conversation, I figured out what was true about myself. I think of every transperson who is still stuck in that world of normativity which is so oppressive. It needs to change. 

Agreed. Okay, let’s do some random questions. What’s a novel you would like to reside in?

I’d go into N. K. Jemisin’s “Broken Earth” trilogy. It’s an intense landscape and an amazingly written journey. Her writing makes me think of the earth differently. The way the humans connect to the earth and its elements is something I’d like to experience in my own body. 

A time you were glad that you said no.

I’m going to answer that by saying that I’m trying to start a practice of enjoying saying no, by imagining the things that I can say yes to because I said no to something.

Who would you want to do a love scene with?

Oh wow, I’ll say Tessa Thompson. I think she’d be a… grounded scene partner. 

Are you still playing any sports?

No, but I’ve recently been working out to get ready for some stuff…

If you have headphones on, generally what music would you be playing?

If I’m listening with headphones it’s probably wordless. That could be classical or jazz or electronica, but lyrics can be really distracting for me. 

Something you picked up during quarantine time?

The quarantine made me realize I needed a dog, so I now have a demanding and commanding Corgi named Solisha. 

I would love to learn how to…

Oh, there are so many different dances I want to learn. And how to live in the woods.  

If you were in a band, what instrument/role would you play?

I have a desire/fear of being a frontman for a band. The performance style seems so fun and freeing but I also can’t imagine being onstage with so much space to fill with no lines to say, just singing and looking cool. Sounds equally liberating and stressful. 

Name something you had a close call with?


What’s the first thing people notice about you?

My hair. And the fact that I frown when I’m thinking which is luckily/unluckily most of the time.  

And finally, what do you think you are meant to teach?

How to be (more) free.