In Her New Show, Rita Indiana Confronts All Kinds of Ghosts
“In the time you dropped a chorus, I wrote five novels.”
It’s the kind of shot that only Rita Indiana could fire off in a song. The lyrics — which appear in “Como un dragón,” the lead single from the musician and writer’s last album, “Mandinga Times” in 2020 — encapsulate the interdisciplinary abundance she has cultivated over the last 20 years. They also show off a slick-talking, Caribbean kind of realness, which lives in the characters that populate her world.
On a recent Friday afternoon, Indiana was running around at the Clemente Soto Vélez Cultural & Educational Center on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, posing for photos and working on set decorations with an assistant. She and her wife, the Puerto Rican filmmaker Noelia Quintero Herencia, were putting the final touches on a multimedia performance called “Tu nombre verdadero” (“Your Real Name”), which debuts on Friday at the Clemente’s Flamboyán Theater.
Indiana, who sports a huge tattoo of an American buffalo on her right hand, sighed as she paused to rest on a bench. Tufts of gray sprouted from her shaggy pixie cut. “I’m a punk abuela,” she said, laughing. Not quite your average grandma.
Over the last two decades, the 45-year-old Dominican artist has transformed into one of the Caribbean’s foremost cultural agitators. Indiana’s repertoire unsettles deeply entrenched cultural norms — she’s not afraid to write queer sex scenes in her award-winning books, or condemn corrupt politicians in her genre-shattering songs. In 2010, she and her band Los Misterios released the blistering “El juidero,” a record about diasporic longing and Dominican identity that shredded up merengue, rock and Afro-Dominican folk styles.
Indiana’s early works were almost documentarian, exploring the everyday joys and contradictions of Caribbean life. In recent years, she has journeyed into freakier, more fantastical universes. For “Mandinga Times,” which was nominated for a Latin Grammy, she developed a demonic nonbinary alter ego, meant to symbolize all kinds of marginalized bodies.
Her 2015 novel “La mucama de Ominculé,” a dystopian tale set in Santo Domingo, follows a transgender protagonist who travels back in time via a divine sea anemone to save the world from nuclear catastrophe. Scholars praise Indiana’s constellatory style, particularly the way she integrates tropical futurism, queer poetics and the buoyancy of Dominican speech to imagine the liberatory possibilities of the present. The acclaim has made her a literary superstar; she is currently serving as the acting director of New York University’s Creative Writing in Spanish M.F.A.
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At the Clemente, Quintero Herencia, who designed the sets for “Tu nombre verdadero,” whittled disembodied clay fingers while Indiana traced the creative process behind the show. It features her first new music since “Mandinga Times,” the LP that ended a 10-year hiatus during which she focused on writing. It’s also Indiana’s first piece as a New York resident. (The couple spent 14 years in Puerto Rico.)
The show’s nonlinear story immerses the audience in experiences of death and illness, particularly as they relate to artists. Indiana said it explores the weight that an artist’s name has when they die. She cited the photographer, painter and AIDS activist David Wojnarowicz; the painter Jean-Michel Basquiat; and the Spanish poet and playwright Federico García Lorca as some of the figures that shaped the spirit of the performance. Indiana herself goes by a shortened version of her birth name (Rita Indiana Hernández Sánchez), and said she chose it not to Anglicize her identity, but because she felt Indiana was more interesting.
The theatricality of “Tu nombre verdadero” draws on Indiana’s teenage years in the independent Dominican theater group Teatro Guloya, where she studied alongside the visionary actors Claudio Rivera and Viena González. Quintero Herencia has worked as a director, prop designer and set builder in most of Indiana’s films and music videos, and said the piece will feature dreamlike visual projections. “Tu nombre verdadero” is the “inevitable fate of our practices,” Indiana added.
While conceptualizing the show, commissioned by the Americas Society, the couple navigated a wave of death, both personal and collective. They mourned the millions lost in the pandemic, as well as close friends, relatives and beloved musicians, like Quintero Herencia’s mother, the Dominican painter Jorge Pineda and the merengue icon Johnny Ventura. In part, the performance is a way to guide “our ghosts” to a better place and process our memories of them, Indiana said.
The couple’s longstanding fascination with death and ancestral energies has surfaced in their previous work. “I never separate my art from my spiritual world and the world of my ancestors,” Quintero Herencia said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a movie, a documentary or a drawing. There’s always a channel that I open, that I know is connected to the ancestral world.” Indiana, whose father died violently when she was around 12, explained that death has intrigued her for as long as she can remember. She often wonders how a body “that we love with, fight with, work with, understand with, cry with” suddenly becomes nothing.
It’s a subject that has also emerged from Caribbean colonial wounds. The island of Hispaniola, home to Haiti and the Dominican Republic, was the first New World colony settled by Spain in 1493. Indiana said the region is still confronting its sordid past — the massacre of native Taínos, the cruel violence of the Atlantic slave trade — and all the cultural knowledge and traditions that were annihilated in the process. “Colonialism is a machine of death,” she said. “We are a part of that — of all that pain and that whole factory of bones.”
Indiana tapped a small crew of musicians for the show, including the composer and frequent collaborator Luis Amed Irizarry, who arranged the songbook for piano and drums. Efraín Martínez, a drummer who has toured with the merengue idol Olga Tañón and recorded with the reggae group Cultura Profética, also joined the lineup.
Indiana described the compositions as “bare bones,” far removed from the conventional structures of popular music. “It’s a more poetic language, more absurd,” she said. “The references are from my childhood, the music I heard when I was very small.” She recalled the influence of her great-aunt Ivonne Haza, a decorated soprano, who was a vocal coach for some of the Dominican Republic’s most renowned singers, including Fernandito Villalona and Sonia Silvestre. Haza would give lessons at Indiana’s grandparents’ house, where Indiana lived until she was 7.
“That was like the soundtrack to my homework — four hours, five hours of that,” she explained, chuckling.
The songbook is impressionistic, sculpting Dominican gagá, Spanish copla, Cuban son and other genres into abstract shapes. There is even an experimental merengue, inspired by Danny Elfman’s Tim Burton scores, and an English-language satirical country number that addresses the brutality of Latin American dictatorships. Indiana burst into the chorus of the song, adopting a Southern twang: “He’s our strong man, he’s our puppet, he’s our pawn/You should see how he trips/Over our banana splits/When we choose his killers from among his own.”
Indiana’s fearlessness helped inspire the Dominican artist La Marimba to fuse and tinker with disparate genres — to not be afraid to “have your own identity and show it.” She called Indiana a key figure in a movement of Dominican musicians who adapted the country’s folk traditions for the contemporary moment.
A generation of young Dominican writers also identifies Indiana as a lodestar. Johan Mijail, who appeared in a 2018 anthology of contemporary Dominican literature that Indiana edited, said that Indiana’s novels permitted Mijail’s own writing to “offer a view of Santo Domingo and its outskirts where music, popular culture and the urban could be taken as possible horizons for sexual diversity to bloom.”
With “Tu nombre verdadero” almost behind her, Indiana is working on her own books, too. “I wrote a novel last year that’s in a drawer right now,” she said, describing it as a “gender horror novel” she will revisit later. Another book, set in Puerto Rico and related to the Vietnam War, is coming later this year.
No matter the medium, Indiana’s work is nourished by endless interrogation. She noted that the commitment to scrutiny — both of self and community — is grounded in her lived reality. “As a queer person, I’m questioning my identity until I’m dead,” she said. “In this perpetual transitional state,” she added, “what is my real name?”
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