NEW YORK — Like many little girls, Vanessa Verduga went off to dance class at her mother's urging.
"My mother was a trained dancer, and she originally started me on that path too," Verduga said. "But she thought I would phase out of it. She wanted me to get a higher education and become a lawyer. That's what every immigrant wants for her kids. She wanted me to get out of The Bronx."
As it happened, Verduga did not "phase out" of her love of performing, nor did she fail to pursue her education. She went on to become a lawyer and created and stars in a highly successful web series. She is also currently starring in the off-Broadway comedic play Implications of Cohabitation - which she also wrote - on New York's Theatre Row.
"My mom did not see it (acting) as something with money or a viable career," Verduga told NBC News recently. So Verduga went to Baruch College for business, and then on to Seton Hall University School of Law.
It was while studying for her JD that Verduga joined a theater group and began taking classes at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts on the side. "I decided to do this to get it out of my system," she said. "I still haven't got it out of my system yet!"
With "Implications of Cohabitation," Verduga explores broken family ties, abandonment issues, and the generation gap - all over heaping platters of Ecuadorian-style empanadas. The play, billed as "a new heartfelt comedy," also stars Anthony Ruiz, David Pendleton, and Adriana Sananes. Directed by Leni Mendez, it runs until August 24 at the Clurman Theatre in New York City.
Verduga, who is of Ecuadorian heritage, said that both her legal and acting training have served her well. "At The Academy, we could do any role, there was no stereotyping," she recalled. "It wasn't until I was trying to get an agent, or a manager, that I realized that people are constantly trying to fit me in a box. I realized that I am a lawyer in real life, but I don't think I would ever get cast as one because people wanted me to be more Rosie Perez."
"But I realized that I have the ability to write," Verduga continued. "That is one thing law school taught me. I decided our (Latino) stories deserved to be told — we have the same struggles; our stories are universal."
Verduga went on to create, write, and star in the web series Justice Woman, in which she plays an assistant district attorney by day and a masked crime fighter by night. Now in its third season, Justice Woman has racked up over 2 million views on its YouTube channel.
"Implications of Cohabitation" began as a vignette that Verduga wrote for an acting class. As she developed it further, she began seeing elements of her own life in the story, and considered making it into a film. "But theater is my first love," she said, "so I thought, why not make it into a play?"
In Implications, a recently widowed Latino father decides it would be a good idea to reconnect with his adult children by taking turns living with them. "I want to get to know you," he tells them. Pulling his wheelie suitcase around from one home to another, he encounters a jittery bride, a sage-like homeless man, a gay boxer, and an aggressively cheerful waitress.
According to Verduga, there are two messages that she hopes the audience will take away from her play. "One is the importance of second chances. We all deserve them, although we need to take responsibility for our actions and not just blame each other," she said. "Two, is the importance of not judging each other. Everybody has their own way of processing things - their experiences, their emotions - and unless we've walked in someone's shoes, we shouldn't judge them."
Verduga told NBC that, so far, the play has had enthusiastic, multicultural audiences. "We've had a very mixed crowd, but people seem to get it," she said. "I wanted to show that, in Latino culture, we don't just cut off people. No matter how much we fight, at the end of the day, it is my uncle, my sister, my cousin - that is how it has been in my family. We have the enduring bonds, the connections."
Echoing this, one character in Implications notes that, "If you got no family, you got nothing."
Looking ahead, Verduga believes that it is important for Latinos to continue to create their own projects. Things are changing in the entertainment industry, she pointed out, thanks in part to stars that wear multiple hats, like Eva Longoria, Jennifer Lopez, and Lin-Manuel Miranda.
"For me it is important to let my fellow Latino artists show that they don't need to be down on their luck, you have to go and push. Don't worry about the fear," said Verduga.
"Everyone will always have a problem with something you do, so just do it. And right now you are serving as an example for someone else coming behind you. You need to break that door behind you for them. That's why I do what I do."