“There was no way I could genuinely recreate everyone. If I were to make an honest attempt — and this isn’t to say I don’t trust my writing — but theater never ends up being exactly like the sort of thing that it’s trying to represent.”
Daniel Rendón said that to me while describing the writing process and character development in his theatre and dance thesis “I Met God (and the Devil) in an Uber.” When I sat down to write Rendón’s profile, I felt the same way. As he told me, it’s hard — if not impossible — to capture the intricacies of life in just an hour or two on stage. How could I begin to describe Rendón in just a few thousand words?
What became abundantly clear to me is that Rendón hasn’t followed the well-paved road to graduation.
Now that he’s graduating, he looks back at when he first arrived and notes the more diverse student body, supportive administration and science center that the college didn’t have when he matriculated in 2012. During his junior year, he took an extended medical leave of absence — nearly five years — which he spent in California working. When he returned to finish the theater and dance major, he came back healthier, with a newfound appreciation for what it means to be human and a sense of maturity and humility that is rare on campus.
Finding the Stage
Rendón grew up in Malden, Massachusetts, just outside of Boston. He lived with his mother, Gloria Emilse, father, Hernando León and older brother, Juan Davíd. Rendón’s first language was Spanish. His parents emigrated to the United States in the late 1980s from Medellín, Colombia. He spoke Spanish at home and English at school, and some of his earliest memories are of grappling with his dual American and Colombian identities.
“It was very imperative to me as a child to speak English without an identifiable accent, so that I wouldn’t attract attention to my family and that kind of way,” he said.
He found the stage for the first time during his years at Malden Public High School. At the Massachusetts High School Drama Festival hosted by the Massachusetts Educational Theatre Guild at the John Hancock Hall, Rendón won an outstanding acting award for his performance in a piece written by his high school class. That recognition and others he earned during high school encouraged him to become an artist, he told me.
But it was a difficult decision to pursue the arts. “I think you can get the same type of story from a lot of people with immigrant parents,” he said. “Saying that you want to be anything other than a doctor, lawyer or anything prestigious of that nature almost equates to failure.”
Rendón found Amherst by a stroke of luck. A friend in high school had applied to Amherst through the Questbridge program and recommended it to Rendón. He applied through Questbridge, did not match through the program, but was accepted during regular decision nonetheless.
In the spring of his high school year, the decision to attend Amherst was an easy one. Rendón was in the fortunate circumstance of choosing between Brown University and Amherst, and because Amherst provided a more generous financial aid package he accepted the latter.
It wasn’t an easy transition. “I had a hard time adjusting. I had this idea of ‘Do I really belong here? Did I earn my right to be here?’ It’s a thought that a lot of students have at some point,” he said. During the fall of his junior year, a combination of physical and mental illnesses forced Rendón to take a medical leave of absence.
The California Years
Following his temporary departure from Amherst, Rendón moved to the Bay Area in California with his significant other at the time, but when they separated he went to Long Beach, California, in part to pursue a career in acting and because he had a mutual friend there. But he never found time to audition. It was a dark period of time for him.
In the fall of 2017, Rendón was houseless. He worked at Trader Joe’s from 3 p.m. to 11 p.m., took shifts as an Uber driver in his gunmetal-colored 2016 Nissan Sentra until four in the morning and if he couldn’t find a friend in Los Angeles to stay with for the night, he slept in his car.
“It was weird because I was working as an Uber driver and taking these riders to different places in my car, and in the back of my head I thought, ‘I wonder if they realize that I’m living in my car at this moment … I remember there were moments when I was behind on car payments, and I got a call from repo companies that said, ‘The repo men are out looking for your car right now.’”
“And then, eventually things turned around,” Rendón said. He saved enough to get his own apartment, and found a new job at an immigration law firm just down the street from where he previously worked as a butcher in a Brazilian steakhouse in Oakland.
He worked as a file clerk for the law firm in Oakland that is now called Fuerza (strength in Spanish). He typically ran between his office and San Francisco to get official documents stamped by court clerks. His favorite part of the job, he told me, was giving clients their green cards.
As the son of immigrants, he felt a special connection to the individuals he helped. That same desire to help others might have been the reason Rendón returned, after three-and-a-half years, to Amherst. While working at the law office, he realized that to achieve his ultimate goal of supporting his parents, he needed to first earn his degree from Amherst.
Returning to Amherst
So he came back. He continued with his theater and dance major, and pursued writing a thesis. Inspired by his own life and conversations with individuals while driving Uber, Rendón wrote “I Met God (and the Devil) in an Uber” (which is available to view on the Squarespace).
“One thing that always fascinated me was the divine comedy,” he said, “how you end up in purgatory and then eventually you end up in heaven.”
But the classic “rise of the hero” story arc is overdone, he told me. Real life isn’t a perfect story arc with a set-up, rising action, climax and resolution — it’s filled with turns, falls, leaps and rises, but not always in that order. The thesis topic isn’t grim (though it does have a content warning at the beginning) — it’s realistic. In some ways, it’s meant to mirror Dante’s Inferno, where there are different levels of hell, and the main character goes down, down and down until he’s torn apart.
How boring theater would be if all characters were correct, or politically correct. “I always wanted my thesis to be representative of the real world,” Rendón said. This part of our conversation is where I picked the quote from the beginning of this article.
It’s difficult to capture the nuances of a person, but Rendón does just that with his piece. In fact, he goes a step further and illuminates what people want to hide.
“I think people often don’t recognize how complex we actually are as people. The fact of the matter is, in the real world, there’s an aspect about you that is conservative to the tooth. We like to condemn someone based on one action, but that’s selling a person short. It’s saying they’re not capable of growing up, or they’re not capable of changing their behavior. That’s what I was trying to get at with my piece,” he said.
“It has been a privilege to work with him,” Ron Bashford, the chair of Amherst’s theater and dance department and the scene director for Rendón’s thesis, said. “When [Rendón] left Amherst about five years ago in the middle of his junior year, I didn’t know if I would ever see him again. It is a testament to his tenacity and growth as a human being that he got through difficult times, returned to Amherst and completed the theater and dance major with an ambitious and personal honors project,” he said.
Balancing His Dream
When I asked Rendón what he would like to do in the future, without hesitation he said “My dream is to be able to support my parents as they live out their golden years.”
That led to a topic that came up multiple times during our conversation — pursuing a career in acting is … risky, to say the least. But he’s a great actor, and in Rendón’s opinion, it’s good to believe in yourself sometimes.
But it’s a secondary goal beneath supporting his family. After graduating, Rendón will be looking for a job that pays well. He was quick to note that his acting career isn’t over — he’d like to pursue it as a hobby, and if it goes well then he could see himself picking it up full-time. Rendón hinted that he might like to work at a law firm, as a testament to his father who was just a few semesters away from becoming a lawyer when he arrived in the United States.
Until then, what’s certain is that Rendón’s future is bright. In the future, it might be even brighter under the stage lights.