After checking out En el Nombre de Salomé at the Repertorio Español, I caught up with Dalia Davi — the actress behind Salomé. While she’s now a Salomé expert, it turns out she was as new to pre-Trujillo Dominican history as I was before she was cast for the role. We chatted about the difficulties of comprehending 19th century Spanish, her start in acting, and her flair for playing bad-ass Dominicanas—no matter what decade they’re from. Here’s what Dalia had to say:
You attribute some of your start in acting and theater to your faith growing up. Can you tell us a bit about that?
Dalia Davi: My mother converted to the Pentecostal faith when I was six and my life became the church. I think of it as being in costume for all of my teenage years. I wasn’t even allowed to wear pants in my day to day life. If you’ve ever seen show Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt—that was kind of how I grew up! I see that as my first acting training. I wasn’t always happy going to church but the Pentecostal faith is very charismatic with a lot of singing and theater—turning the Bible stories into plays. And that was the only extracurricular activity I could do. We would also do missionary work, preach to the children, and help out with Sunday school. And a lot of it was in Spanish so it helped my mind and language skills develop in that oratory way.
You grew up in the South Bronx and you’ve acted in several plays at the Repertorio Español. Did the Spanish you used growing up in church help prepare you for Spanish language theater?
DD: Yes! And it wasn’t just the church growing up. My mother is a Dominican immigrant who came to this country when she was three months pregnant with me and she didn’t speak any English. She has an eighth grade education, so I had to toughen up at a really young age and I was the first in my family to speak English. At home and in church I spoke Spanish but then to survive in school I had to speak English. In a professional sense, all of my formative training was in English here in America and London. I never imagined that the “acting” in Spanish at my church would help put me on the fast track to my career in the Spanish language world today. Still, when I initially get the Spanish script it’s a little difficult—I’m not naturally as fast in Spanish reading. I have to take my time, but we’re lucky that we collaborate closely with the writers who usually have an English script as well. I prepare with the English script and do a lot of technical linguistic work with the Spanish. It’s very much like school for me. Then I get into the background of the play.
Talking about the background of the play—most plays at the Repertorio are not only in Spanish, but also have strong cultural or historic ties to Latin America or Latino communities in the United States. In your role as Salomé in this play and Minerva Mirabal In the Time of the Butterflies, you’ve played the role of strong female Dominican activists. What did you learn from these characters?
DD: The awakening and awareness aspect of knowing that I come from a culture of strong women has made such an impact. My mom had a hard lifestyle growing up under Trujillo. She was raised by her grandparents and is dark-skinned so she was affected by the racism and wanted to escape. I’m the only light-skinned person in my family and I didn’t know who to look up to growing up — I didn’t even look like my mom. I always looked up to other cultures to find my role model because I didn’t think that there was anything left in Dominican culture for me as a woman to explore. But being cast in the role of Minerva and Salomé got me researching and helped me to understand my heritage. What Minerva had to go through really opened up my world and helped make sense of how people like my mom were affected by Trujillo with the authoritarianism and the racism. And Salomé was a pure artist, poet, and a genius who was writing at the age of 15 and later became the national poet laureate of a country. So I started thinking—what happened? We went from having these great women to now not having Dominican women represented well globally. To know that this is what I come from and that now I have a story to share with this new generation is amazing.
Minerva and Salomé had much different styles as activists—Minerva taking a direct stand while Salomé was perhaps more reserved. What do you think caused this difference? Was there anything that really stood out about their legacies?
DD: Salomé came much before Minerva—I see her as that first revolution forming in the Dominican Republic whereas Minerva, I see as the second revolution. But the one human aspect they have in common is that they left young children and weren’t allowed to be mothers. And I think that overall we praise the political work and all the things we do as women, but these were women who had something missing. And I feel that when I play them. Their spirits are sort of wishing that they had the chance to be mothers to their daughters—not just political mothers. They were missing that human element.
Was there a particular character or scene that resonated most strongly with you? Or a cast member that you have the best on stage chemistry with?
DD: At the Repertorio we’re a good group and we’ve all worked together before. We can really read each other. You’ll be on stage and get a look from another cast member and you know them so well that you know something is wrong. It’s sort of this pseudo family that they’ve created. In this play my favorite moment is that last scene—the birth scene where all 11 of us are out there and the papers are being thrown. That was a fun scene because everyone was there and we got to choreograph it. We all knew that we were trying to create a picture. I love those moments when everybody is just there together and making it work. It was such a beautiful poetic moment that the director was trying to paint on stage. Just to be part of a vision and to execute it and to see that the audience reacts to it.
What do you hope viewers take away from the play?
DD: Viola Davis gave her award speech at the Oscars about exhuming bodies from the graveyard to tell their stories. Telling those stories and keeping those traditions going—that’s exactly how I see it with these characters. They’re mothers, daughters, fathers, sons, grandmothers, brothers, sisters. They have a heart and a soul. And we can all relate to that. I didn’t know a lot about Salomé, but with these past couple of months I’ve really been able to delve into this woman, this language, and these images. We need to keep raising awareness about Dominican and Latin American women. Latin women around the world [should] feel a sense of connection with the political climate we have today and the movement that’s going on. It’s amazing to know that it was going on before today and there’s a reason why it has to keep going on.
Dalia shows no signs of slowing down. She’ll be busy playing Salomé through June at the Repertorio. We’ll also see her on camera with her short film, Gabi, and her one woman show, Queen of Technicolor, where she tells the story of the first Dominican to make it to Hollywood—Maria Montez.