First and foremost, Universo is a pop concert. Performing artist and musician Joaquin Lopez and director Michael Cavazos are no strangers to taking biographical stories from Portland's Latinx community and turning them into musical stage shows. But in this case, it's Lopez's own experience coming out as a 15-year-old in the Portland suburb of Aloha some three decades ago that gets an original, lively soundtrack—and the audience is given plenty of room to stand up and dance to his narrative.
Before it hits the stage at Milagro Theatre next week, Universo was released as an album in June. The songs imagine what Lopez's music would sound like if he had been inspired by popular artists of the '80s and '90s—including everyone from Madonna to Nine Inch Nails—as well as how life might have been if he didn't have to endure that era's homophobia and AIDS crisis.
The bilingual show, beginning with a mood of angsty loneliness before building to a high-energy dance-oriented crescendo, depicts two archetypal queer people taking separate journeys that eventually have them coming together to find harmony. Lopez plays a masculine individual undoing the conditioning that alienated their feminine side, and Cavazos—who describes himself as gender-fluid—portrays a feminine character exploring and embracing their masculine identity.
"It's not 'Let me tell you a story,' it's 'Listen to the music, look at the colors and projections and sounds and video,'" Lopez explains. "It's just really about making a heightened experience and providing some visual eye candy while he sings his songs so the audience, who may not speak Spanish, can follow along."
Though it begins in a dark place, two people gradually find their way toward light. It's a broad concept, referencing Latino interpretations of heavenly bodies like the sun and moon. Poetry, mythology and other mediums are also incorporated.
"There really is something for everyone," Cavazos says. "If you don't speak Spanish, you're going to get a visual experience and an aural experience regardless."
When not performing, Lopez is a therapist who's also involved with organizations that work to empower the Latino community. Before coming to Portland, Cavazos was part of an influential experimental New York drag troupe and now takes on projects with Imago Theatre and Universo producers Hand2Mouth. They were aware of each other through the theater community, uniting briefly in response to a popular local auditions listserv's overwhelming whiteness, but met again at a vigil held after the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando.
"We realized we had really similar views on the gay Latino experience," Cavazos says. "We're of the same age, so we have the same pop culture references, and we speak a similar language, which is really lovely."
"We also have this common experience where we came of age at that time when AIDS had just become a chronic disease, because before it was a death sentence," Lopez adds. "So we grew up with that mentality, that fear that we were going to die."
Universo is Lopez and Cavazos' way of using music and theater to engage in important queer conversations, like freedom of self-expression or the evolution of gender-neutral language. This production is about finding balance and healing wounds inflicted generationally as queer men were conditioned to neglect their femininity.
"Back then, the gender roles were really strict," Lopez says. "Naturally, to work against the AIDS stereotype, men beefed up, so you had to be really tough."
"That's where gym culture came into play; it was a response to what was happening in our community," Cavazos says, "and for someone like me, who is naturally more effeminate, I didn't fit that. So we had to have a lot of discussions about femininity and masculinity for [Universo]."
SEE IT: Universo plays at Milagro Theatre, 525 SE Stark St., hand2mouththeatre.org. 8 pm Thursday-Friday, 2 and 8 pm Saturday, July 11-13. $5-$25.