Emilio Rodriguez asks who gets to decide what’s offensive in his play "God Kinda Looks Like Tupac"


A photo of Emilio Rodriguez, author of the play God Kinda Looks Like Tupac.

Emilio Rodriguez, author of the play God Kinda Looks Like Tupac. Photo via his Facebook page.

NOTE: "God Kinda Looks Like Tupac" has been pushed back from its original opening date to August 5 due to illness.

Emilio Rodriguez, whose play God Kinda Looks Like Tupac opens at Ann Arbor's Theatre Nova on July 29 August 5, says his theater career started early.

Very early.

Donning his mother’s high heels and appropriating her broom and a funnel, he performed “one-kid adaptations of The Wizard of Oz” in the family’s living room.

Perhaps one reason why a movie with the famous line "There's no place like home" resonated with Rodriguez is that he is a self-described “military brat” who grew up on the move. Rodriguez says he didn’t have a sense of hometown until he moved to Detroit in 2012 to teach high school English and drama for AmeriCorps. One thing that informs all his work, he says, is “a loose sense of the idea of home. The plays are not necessarily set in someone’s home [but ask] … how do people make a sense of home?”

When Rodriguez began teaching, he saw the classroom as “an extension of home. … In the younger grade levels, kids spend more time at school than with their families.” He also found that friendships with colleagues gave him a sense of connection, of a mock family, a home. 

Rodriguez set God Kinda Looks Like Tupac in a Detroit high school, where a white art teacher in the mostly Black school has been targeted as insensitive. A Latino teacher offers a suggestion to the art teacher that might help him keep his job: It’s Black History month, she tells him, and there’s a competition; if a student he enters can paint something in celebration of the month and win, chances are good he will be named Teacher of the Year.

And who would fire Teacher of the Year? 

Maria Ochoa and Nate Brassfield rehearse their roles in the play God Kinda Looks Like Tupac.
Maria Ochoa and Nate Brassfield rehearse their roles in the play God Kinda Looks Like Tupac. Photo by Vincent Ford Jr.

But what if the student creates a work that some might find offensive?

What if in her artwork, God resembles Tupac—not an icon like Rosa Park but an artist who raps about shootings and drugs?

Is it OK for a teacher to try to change his student’s perspective about her work?

Two teachers and a student engage in a clash of ideas while his job hangs in the balance.

Rodriguez says that at a time when issues of political correctness and wokeness abound, he wants to explore the question, “Who gets to decide what is correct or incorrect ... offensive or not offensive?”

He says he’s found that people with similar values about racial identity, gender, or sexual orientation don’t always agree on what is offensive and what isn’t. “It was exciting for me to play around with that idea and tell it through the lens of a classroom."

Rodriguez was careful not to make any of the characters cartoonish, as he says sometimes happens when a play centers on a controversial issue. “I wanted to show both points of view,” says the playwright, who seeks to create three-dimensional roles for Latinos and actors of color. 

Theatre Nova's advertisement for the play God Kinda Looks Like Tupac featuring the rapper in an Photoshopped approximation of the deity.

Vincent Ford Jr., who directs Nate Brassfield, MJ Handsome, and Maria Ochoa in the play, says the work explores the differences between peoples' internal versus external personalities.

“I’m trying not to stress that these characters are flawed, but ... to show where they’re coming from," Ford says. "We all have things that aren’t acceptable in the public view [and it’s important to] forge out a conversation.”  

Tupac was slated for production in 2020 and was canceled when Covid came on the scene. There were plans to stage it in 2021 also, but again, it couldn’t happen. “It’s been two years,” says Rodriguez. “It’s really exciting to see it come to fruition.” 

The director who had been scheduled in 2020 had to bow out and Ford came in to direct. He had just opened a production at Tipping Point Theatre in Northville, Michigan, where he is an associate artist and works in the theater’s administration. Ford grew up in the Mississippi Delta, a small town called Anguilla. “I’m a Delta boy, a small-town boy with big city dreams,” he says.

Maria Ochoa, MJ Handsome, and Nate Brassfield rehearse the play God Kinda Looks Like Tupac.

Maria Ochoa, MJ Handsome, and Nate Brassfield rehearse the play God Kinda Looks Like Tupac. Photo by Vincent Ford Jr.

After attending a performing arts high school in Atlanta, Ford studied acting at the University of Michigan. He also holds a masters from Northwestern University in leadership and creative enterprises. Ford says he believes “art heals, and the best way to get on one accord is to learn each other’s experiences.”

While God Kinda Looks Like Tupac is by no means Rodriguez's first play, he's only been writing full-length scripts for 11 years. He enrolled at UC Irvine in music, planning to study jazz composition—he wanted to be a songwriter initially—but switched majors to theater. He was writing scenes and devised work in college, but he wrote a full play for the first time in 2011, after taking a class in playwriting at South Coast Repertory. Since then, Rodriguez's plays have been staged in theaters and festivals throughout the country. He teaches an introductory playwriting class at the University of Michigan and serves as artistic director of Black and Brown Theatre, a Detroit-area theater company he co-founded. 

Rodriguez is looking forward to Ford’s production of Tupac. “I hope audiences who see this play are able to walk away with their own conversations and connections to moments in their lives,” he says.

Freelance writer Davi Napoleon did her undergraduate work at the University of Michigan, where she won two Hopwood Awards for playwriting. The author of Chelsea on the Edge: The Adventures of an American Theater, she holds a doctorate in theater history, theory, and criticism from New York University.

“God Kinda Looks like Tupac” runs from August 5-August 21 at Theatre Nova, 410 W. Huron St., Ann Arbor. Patrons are required to be vaccinated and masked. For tickets and further information, visit theatrenova.org.