Tony Diary: Performing in the Wake of Unimaginable Tragedy

Tony Awards   Last Night I Danced For You: Performing in the Wake of Tragedy
On Your Feet! cast member Eric Ulloa tries to make sense of the Orlando tragedy, the worst mass shooting in U.S. history, on the day he made his Tony Awards debut.
Josh Segarra, Gloria Estefan and Ana Villafane and the cast of <i>On Your Feet!</i>
Josh Segarra, Gloria Estefan and Ana Villafane and the cast of On Your Feet! Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions

I am Eric Ulloa, and I am in the cast of Broadway’s On Your Feet! I am also a playwright and librettist. My play 26 Pebbles is taken from my experience in Newtown, CT, after the horrific Sandy Hook School shooting and the weeks of interviews and conversations I had with just about anyone who would speak to me there.

Eric Ulloa
Eric Ulloa

Yesterday, the nightmare of gun violence finally hit home as 50 innocent people were killed at a gay nightclub in my adoptive home of Orlando, FL, the city where I attended college at the University of Central Florida.

Yesterday was also my first time performing at the Tony Awards.

These two moments should have never met, yet somehow they did. Here's what my mind can make of it for now...

We Danced

I’m onstage at the Tony Awards singing and dancing. To my right is Gloria Estefan singing the last portion of our number along with the rest of my cast. In front of me are celebrities witnessing this moment that has been 10 years in the making. Every year watching it on TV and saying, “Next year, I’m gonna be on that stage.” My mind is racing, my hands are shaking, my cheeks hurt from smiling so hard, yet my heart is painfully sore.

Suddenly, the music changes and I hear that familiar beat. The thump thump thump of the speaker that drums away everything else. The walls begin to light up different colors to coincide with the music. I look to my left and there are men dancing with their arms flung in the air. I look to my right and I see the drag queen making her way to the stage, vodka soda in hand. I take off my shirt and stuff it into the back of my jeans, fling my own hands in the air and realize that I’m back in the place where it all began. I am back in Orlando, the city that shaped the gay man I would be.

Just as fast as I get there, I’m suddenly back onstage at the Beacon and the number is over and the audience is cheering. I can’t believe I have finally accomplished this. My mother and father are back in Florida with eyes full of tears watching their eldest son fulfill his dreams. My siblings with their own children now, are pointing at the screen saying, “Look, there’s Tio Eric!”

My god, my heart. It hurts.

The applause starts to build into a cacophony of noise and suddenly it’s just the sound of sirens pouring down the street. Mothers and Fathers with tears in their eyes are running past police barricades praying that their child still has a future of dreams left. Brothers and Sisters are pointing at lists of the injured and deceased with wildly varied expressions of horror or relief.

How could this happen here? All these people wanted to do was dance. How could an evening of dancing end this way?

As long as the day has been, the Tonys comes and goes so quickly and we are back on the bus headed to the Marquis Theatre to change into our celebratory wear, as an evening of parties and laughter is imminent.

I check my phone for the first time since we got onstage and there are hundreds of notifications. Offerings of congratulations and praise come at me from every corner of this world. Yet every time the phone buzzes I’m back in Orlando.

I’m watching everyone check their phones to see if there’s any word yet on their missing friends. I’m watching people post a picture of themselves and their loved one who just died so senselessly. Too many Facebook pages are turning into memorial pages too quickly. How did this happen? How in our community? Our safe haven. The place that accepted me when my parents were still grappling with their son who had just come out of the closet.

These answers may never come and this pain will take some time to morph into something manageable. Here’s what I do know: Last night was for Orlando. Last night was for my LGBT family.

Last night, we danced for you…

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