A new play opening this week at Bushwick’s Unit J says the best time to face grief is when it’s staring right back at us. The winner of a Dutch playwriting award a decade ago, Lot Vekemans’ “Poison,” made its off-Broadway debut seven years ago at the Beckett Theatre. Now, the story will unfold in a very small and intimate space in Bushwick, epitomizing what some critics have called the play’s “fiercely claustrophobic” nature. Hosted inside the home of local actor Richard Carrillo, which he also uses as the Unit J “performance space,” his tear-jerking performance offers an intimate look at loss itself.  

In “Poison,” Vekemans follows the lives of an unnamed couple, known only as “he” or “she,” who are forced to reunite ten years after their son’s death to handle his reinterment after a toxic chemical leaks into the cemetery. Implicitly a hauntingly private play, Carrillo stars, alongside actress Emma Ramos, who played a recurring role in the first three seasons of Netflix’s “New Amsterdam.” The show is directed by Katina Medina Mora, who won an award for her production of the David Harrower play “Blackbird,” over in Mexico City and, more recently, directed a handful of episodes of the hit Netflix show “Emily in Paris.”

In such an intimate setting, Vekemans’ work can feel like it is seeping directly into the audience. 

“I feel like I’m trapped in here, sometimes, I’m never away from it. And it can be a bit daunting,” Carrillo said during a rehearsal last week. 

Carrillo initially moved into Unit J seven years ago —blocks from the Wilson Avenue L station — because it offered him a place to explore creativity from his own living room.

“In something like this, where the audience is so close to the performers…The relationship between the performers and the audience is so much closer,” he added. Buying a ticket for something like Vekemans’s “Poison,” gives people a chance to watch Carrillo and Ramos use the adjacent bathroom, coat rack and coffee maker as props. Some may even be invited to sit on Carrillo’s own living room couch, only a few feet from “the stage.” 

His co-star Emma Ramos says that nobody in New York’s “big theater” world would have given her a lead, which is what brought her to performing somewhere like Unit J in Bushwick.

Ramos, who plays Carrillo’s ex-wife, said that Vekemans’ play prompted her to “inject love” into her acting. She also connected it to her family in Mexico.  

“I’m far away from my family. And, to me, I have to do rituals in order to get proximity to feelings,” she said. “And my character is under a lot of layers, looking for that.”

Collective grief, she says, is better shared—rather than watching a Tik Tok about something elsewhere.

As a Mexican woman, Ramos said that nobody in New York’s “big theater” world would have given her a lead, which is what brought her to performing somewhere like Unit J in Bushwick. 

“Sometimes I have jobs because I’m Mexican, and then because I have talent,” she said about being typecast. “And this is a play that is the opposite. This is a play that I’m here because I have talent [first].” 

In fact, Carrillo, Ramos and Medina Mora are all proudly Mexican. Medina Mora, who is from Mexico City, says that she originally saw the play performed there. In May, she moved to New York with big dreams of directing therater and said she met Carrillo and Ramos shortly after.

“We all have been in love and we all have been brokenhearted, and I think we all have grief in us even if it’s not a child,” Medina Mora said. “I feel like it is one of those plays that I think will touch the hearts just because it’s so universal.” 

Miles from Broadway, a place like Unit J testifies that anyone can see a great play without crossing the bridge. Medina Mora said that it “decentralizes” theater from Manhattan, giving locals a chance to enjoy an evening show only minutes from the L train. Tickets are $40, drinks included with purchase.  

“Theater is a mirror,” said Medina Mora. “I feel like this could be a mirror for people that have lived in pain, and it could be something that moves them towards a better space to do something about their own story.”

Unit J is located at 338 Moffat Street. “Poison” opens there on November 9 and runs through December 2. Tickets can be bought here.

Photos taken by Kenneal Patterson for Bushwick Daily.

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