The playwright behind this summer’s bilingual theater tour is stepping out of the costume shop and into the writer’s room: all while exploring his Mexican identity.

By Laura Weick

Meet Dustin Thomas

A costume technician at Trinity Rep since 2022, Dustin Thomas stitches together the costumes you see on stage, and coordinates the quick changes and last-minute fixes that you don’t. He’s also a costume designer, most recently for The Wilbury Theatre Group’s production of Wolf Play. But his theater journey hasn’t always been so cut and dry. 

Dustin Thomas. Photo by Marisa Lenardson.

Growing up in the small town of Daingerfield, Texas, Dustin acted in shows throughout high school. He initially intended to study pharmacy in college but found himself back in the theater world through his university’s drama club. Then one production, instead of performing, Dustin was asked to help build costumes. 

“I realized that I really enjoyed [making costumes] a lot more,” he explains. “Being able to make something from basically nothing was really exciting to me.” 

Shortly after he graduated from Webster University with a degree in costume design, Trinity Rep hired Dustin to put his craft to the test. Here he met Gabriela López Ruiz, just beginning her own journey at Trinity Rep as a stage management apprentice. Now, Gabi is the production and stage manager for Teatro en El Verano, a bilingual Spanish-English theater partnership with Rhode Island Latino Arts (RILA).  

One night over dinner, she told Dustin that Teatro en El Verano needed a costume designer for their production of La Luz Verde an adaptation of The Great Gatsby). Dustin quickly jumped at the chance! In the summer of 2023, Teatro en El Verano toured the adaptation across Rhode Island. 

Putting Pen to Paper

Soon after the success of La Luz Verde, Rhode Island Latino Arts posted an open call for bilingual plays by local Latino playwrights. And Dustin, who is Mexican-American, decided to challenge himself by entering. 

“I’ve started a lot of plays, I’ve just never finished!” he laughs. “This was an opportunity for me to really buckle down and write a script start to finish.” 

There was just one problem: Dustin wasn’t raised speaking Spanish. But this didn’t deter him. Instead, Dustin saw it as a chance to connect with a part of himself he hadn’t fully explored before. 

Nina Giselle and Alexis Elisa Machedo in 2023’s production of La Luz Verde (The Green Light), an adaptation of The Great Gatsby that Dustin designed costumes for. Photo by Marta V. Martínez.

“I didn’t grow up with my Hispanic side as prevalent as I would have liked, because I mostly grew up with my [non-Hispanic] father’s side of the family,” he says. “Even though I am Mexican from my mother’s side, I never felt like I was allowed to be a part of Hispanic culture and call myself Latino. It wasn’t until recently when I got involved with Teatro en El Verano that I realized, not to be dramatic, but that I have a literal [birthright]!” 

Invigorated by his newfound recognition, Dustin turned to Google for public domain titles he could (legally) adapt. Wanting to stand out from the crowd, he tapped into a lesser-known title: You Never Can Tell by George Bernard Shaw. (Shaw is perhaps best known to modern audiences for his play Pygmalion, which was later adapted into the musical My Fair Lady.)  

Dustin describes You Never Can Tell as a comedy of errors. The story follows three siblings who unknowingly invite their long-lost father to lunch. It has a farcical tone as the characters’ antics grow increasingly chaotic throughout. 

The new bilingual adaptation, titled Alguien Más (“Something Else” in English), takes comedic inspiration from sitcoms Dustin grew up watching such as “The Golden Girls,” “Reba,” and “All in the Family.” Although the main story beats are the same as the original, this version is set in 2024 instead of 1897. 

Alguien Más director Marcel Mascaró performing in 2019’s Teatro en el Verano production of Tanta Bulla… ¿Y Pa’ Qué?/Much Ado About Nothing. Photo by Caitlin Howle.

Through the writing process, Dustin leaned on bilingual and bicultural colleagues, who remain affirming friends. One of them is Marcel Mascaró, a Teatro en El Verano veteran, graduate of the Brown/Trinity Rep MFA Program in Acting, and the director of Alguien Más. Both Marcel and Gabi grew up in bilingual homes, and they challenged Dustin to ask deeper questions about how he used both languages throughout the play.  

“If certain characters are having a conversation, really the big question that has been brought up as we’ve done workshops is ‘Who’s speaking Spanish and why?’ I found that I would ping-pong back and forth in English and Spanish, but it got a little messy. So you have to ask for each character if they are going to speak Spanish the entire thing, or if they do switch to English, then why. That has been a challenge, but rewarding when it works.” 

Dustin’s experience with RILA also allowed him to further explore his cultural identity. One recent example was during Día de Muertos last year, when Dustin, Gabi, and Marta set up an ofrenda in the theater’s upstairs lobby. 

“This is who I am, or at least half of me,” Dustin said of his heritage. “I’m allowed to take part, and I’m allowed to start learning and growing.” 

The ofrenda in the lobby during Día de Muertos 2023. Photo by Natasha Samreny.

Ultimately, RILA chose Dustin to serve as both this year’s playwright and costume designer. When asked why RILA selected Dustin’s play to produce, RILA Executive Director Marta V. Martínez said, “We were searching for a family-friendly play, and among the many submissions, found Dustin’s adaptation of Shaw’s You Never Can Tell (Alguien Más) to be a perfect fit. It offers a delightful bilingual performance that is both humorous and uplifting.” 

Alguien Más runs July 6 – August 2, 2024. For updates on touring dates and locations, visit Rhode Island Latino Arts’ website