Charlotte Street Foundation identifies the needs and fuels the evolution of an ever-changing multidisciplinary arts ecosystem, acting as its primary provocateur. We cultivate the contemporary, the exceptional, and the unexpected in the practice of artists working in and engaging with the Kansas City Art Community
The second post of my (delayed) look back at 2016.
In October, Whim produced the 2nd annual LGBTQ+ short play festival, Alphabet Soup: Stories from Queer Voices. I curated the collection of 10-15 minute long plays. They were all written by KC-area queer playwrights. In addition to my production duties, I wrote a piece for the show and directed the wonderful submission by Jesse Ray Metcalf.
My play was a meet-cute between two men in a gym steam room. It’s a light comedy that also comments on the men’s loneliness and longing for connection. One of the men has only recently come out (to himself, his wife, and the world). Director Chip Miller, of the KC Rep, and the actors (Christopher Steinauer and Vincent Wagner) managed to bring some amazing depth to the play that I hadn’t fully recognized was there.
Later in October, I directed a set of plays for the Every 28 Hours one-minute play festival (produced by The Fishtank). This festival is described by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the original curators, as “a national collaboration inspired by our current Civil Rights Movement. Our title focuses on the widely shared and contested statistic that every 28 hours in America, a black person is killed by the police, vigilante, or security guard.” This was an exciting and humbling project to be part of.
Any time I direct someone else’s work, I approach it with as much care as possible. As a playwright, I understand that writers are taking leaps of faith that directors will “get” the meaning of their work and honor it. And with the Every 28 Hours plays, the importance and the stakes of the plays were much higher than anything I’d worked on before. This was also the first time I got to direct the work of someone known on a national or world-wide level. I directed the piece submitted by noted playwright Neil Labute. Labute’s play was challenging. In a collection of works commenting on black men’s interactions with the police, Labute’s play presented a cop’s point of view. Speaking directly to the audience, the cop talks us through the decision of whether to shoot someone in the line of duty. One of my cast, a white actress named Brie Henderson, specifically asked if she could play the officer. As soon as I got her request, I was more at ease about tackling this play. Her cop’s tough femininity was approachable and sympathetic. It gave the audience the space to consider the life and death decisions that cops have to make on a daily basis. Brie humanized the officer in a way that still honored the realities that black people face every day in America.
November brought the opportunity for Whim to sponsor the screening of a powerful documentary called “Upstairs Inferno.” Screened as part of the Kansas International Film Festival, the film was riveting as it graphically detailed what (until the Pulse nightclub shooting in June 2016) was the largest mass murder of gays in the U.S. In 1973, the Up Stairs Lounge, a gay bar in New Orleans’ French Quarter, was set on fire by a disgruntled patron. The film chronicles the impacts to the survivors and the shameful inaction by the local politicians and clergy at the time. I’d never heard about the fire until the Pulse nightclub shooting usurped the arson’s place as the country’s worst gay tragedy. I was really excited and honored to fund the screening. This was important film about a largely unknown tragedy. Viewed through a certain lens, the events in the film can be seen as a barometer for where we were then and how far we’ve come. In 1973, politicians refused to comment on the tragedy. In 2016, after the Pulse shooting, Hillary Clinton, then the front runner for President, visited the club. This showed a radical change in public and political attitudes. (This was before the Trump administration. The cautious optimism I felt in October has been replaced by a fear for the future.)
In December, Whim produced After Orlando, which is a curated collection of short plays that were written in response to the Pulse shooting. Curated by Missing Bolts Productions and NoPassport Theatre Alliance and Press, the plays were written by writers from the US and around the world, including Neil Labute. In addition to producing the local production, I directed several shorts and wrote a 10 minute play for it. I also acted in two of the pieces.
The play I wrote featured two gay roommates discussing the shooting 6 months later. One roommate, a white man, comments how scared he is to go out, even though he goes out regularly. His Hispanic roommate gently scolds him, pointing out that the tragedy happened on a Latino night at the club and that the shooter chose that night at that club despite there being a much more populated (and white) gay bar in Orlando. The play asks audiences to consider not only the circumstances of the shooting but also their own reactions to the tragedy. Who “owns” tragic events? How and when does one identity outweigh another? In the Pulse shooting, was the general queer community attacked (and by extension, at risk)? Or, was the real target the members of the specific demographic that the evening was catered to? Regardless of the answer (and the facts are still swirling as I write this), the Hispanic and Latinx community in Orlando bore the brunt of the shooting. Whatever personal fear and sadness we have, we must respect and remember the unique and awful impacts the shooting had on the already marginalized community. That community included undocumented immigrants who were afraid to receive health care for fear of deportation. (As I write this, Trump has signed an Executive Order heavily restricting immigration and entry of Muslims into the United States. The issues I described in my play seem at once even more vital and more distant.) People in the Latinx communities across the country, straight and queer, were also impacted by the shooting in new ways; for the first time hearing names and seeing faces like theirs as victims of mass violence.
I learned a lot writing that play and was forced to examine some of my own assumptions and views. I owe a lot to activist Randall Jenson who shared considerable amounts of time and energy to educate me, and even participated as an actor in After Orlando. Randall also facilitated the amazing talk backs we had after each show.
I’ve reached December so you’d think my 2016 retrospective would be complete. You’d be wrong. I set aside a new series of shows that I started, on a whim, late in the year. I’ll tackle that in the next blog post.