As Pride Month unfurls amid plague and long-overdue global upheaval, you have to ask yourself one question: What would Marsha P. Johnson do?
In the Beginning (June 28, 1969 to be exact), Johnson allegedly lobbed a brick (some say a stiletto) at the cops who had decided, yet again, to fuck with the LGBT (it would be decades before the acronym became truly inclusive) kings and queens of the Stonewall Inn. Johnson flung the projectile heard round the world, ushering in a binary-busting revolution that marches on some 51 years later.
To paraphrase the great Tony Kushner, her great work continues. For Pride 2020, much of it continues online as artists navigate a world where contagion has redefined what it means to create community.
Below, a roundup of artists celebrating Pride and—like the late, great Marsha “Pay It No Mind” Johnson—demanding the world take notice.
Get your dollars out
When south-side-born-and-raised drag queen the Vixen addressed Chicago’s Drag March for Change in Boystown Sunday, June 14, the RuPaul's Drag Race alum evoked Johnson’s righteous rage.
“Growing up gay and Black on the south side, you had to worry about dying because of how you looked and also because of how you felt,” recalled the Vixen. The overwhelmingly white gay enclave in Boystown didn’t offer much of a respite, she added. “When I finally went to my first Pride on the north side, it was like, ‘Oh. I’m not welcome here either.’”
With her Black Girl Magic and Queer Table, the Vixen is forging her own brand of welcoming space. BGM is an online variety show for Black drag queens; Queer Table is a talk show where cohosts Vixen and Dida Ritz and a crew of LGBTQIA+ youth discuss everything from body dysmorphia to transphobia. She also appears June 30 in A Queer Pride's Chicago Is a Digital Drag Festival, streaming through AQP's Twitch channel at 8 PM.
“When I started drag in 2013, there was this respectability factor. If you were a drag queen, you were there to entertain, and that was it. Well, I could only keep my mouth shut for so long,” she said. “Black trans women have always been at the forefront of every movement,” she informs audiences at the top of BGM. “It’s time for us to show them some love. So get your dollars out,” she said.
You don’t get to look away
Aimy Tien radiates a similar boldness with The Constitution of Queerdom, adapted from the Power in Pride touring community engagement show.
“So many people think Pride is just rainbows and glitter and naked people. I’m like no, Pride started as a riot. We celebrate, but we have to keep fighting,” Tien said. “The work is not done, not when the life expectancy of a Black trans woman is around 35. All lives can’t matter until Black Lives Matter. All Black Lives can’t matter until Black trans and queer lives matter.”
The Constitution of Queerdom is part of About Face Theatre’s "Power in Pride at Home" series, which focuses on amplifying queer voices, often drawing upon autobiographical stories.
“The more stories we can tell, the better,” said Tien. “Queer stories matter. Queer people matter. You don’t get to look away. We are right here. We are not going anywhere.”
The elephant in the room
Humboldt Park-based UrbanTheater is also acting up online and off. UT’s weekly series ¡Que Pasa! launches with comedy from Roscoe Village native Gwen La Roka, who finds the funny at the intersection of social justice and social distancing.
“Usually, I’m like, 'Oh, I’ll talk smack about anything,'” La Roka said. “But now? There’s a lot of triggers for a lot of people around the devastation of COVID. You have to tread lightly, but you can’t go up on stage and ignore that very obvious elephant in the room.” COVID isn’t the only elephant.
“I saw a post recently that asked why some people are acting like Black people just came out, like, the extent of racism (BIPOC) people deal with is something that’s news that we’re all just realizing. But that elephant has been here for 400 years.”
La Roka describes her ¡Que Pasa! set as “comedy up front, hang around, have a drink and pick my brain” after the stand-up set.
“I tell stories about growing up queer with Mexican and Guatemalan parents, sometimes with Spanglish. I’ve had little old ladies say to me, ‘I didn’t understand every word you said, but I know exactly what you were talking about. My Italian mother was just like your mom.'"
Pushed, challenged, broken
Actor Christine Chang is making their professional debut in Chicago online. They play Ferdinand in Shakespeare All-Stars's online staging of The Tempest. Ferdinand’s story is almost eerily timely: a shipwreck (or a space wreck in All-Stars’s revisionist take) leaves Ferdinand cruelly isolated and struggling to survive in a strange, scary new world. Zoom rehearsals were a challenge, but Chang decided to approach Ferdinand’s love scenes as “a Skype call with someone I have a long-distance relationship with, or an extreme crush on.”
“This was my first Chicago show, and it was supposed to be on a regular stage. So I’ve mourned the loss of that,” they added. “But then I got excited to see how we were going to transition. I mean, yes there are limitations, but limitations are meant to be pushed, challenged, broken.”
Pretending to be a man
Like Chang, Kory Wall is making their Chicago acting debut electronically. The nonbinary 25-year-old plays Man in playwright (and Reader contributor) Jack Helbig’s Thinking of Her. . ., slated to run June 25 through July 12 via cutlassartists.com.
The elliptical romance unspools as a love triangle where traditional gender roles are shrugged off as Man/Waiter, Someone/Waiter, Woman and Woman (Later) navigate romance. Wall is in Springfield, Illinois, with other cast members rehearsing from Oregon and Nebraska. Director Mark Hardiman oversees the project from his Kansas home. “The virtual rehearsing is new, but I’ve had a lot of experience pretending to be a man, so—that wasn’t new,” Wall said.
Fostering safety within the LGBTQIA community—specifically among its dancers—has been a priority for Chicago’s Mark Ferguson Gomez since he performed in Dance for Life more than 20 years ago. Under the auspices of Chicago Dancers United, Dance for Life is in its 29th year of raising money for the Chicago Dancers' Fund, where dancers can apply for financial relief if they’re dealing with health or housing crises. Gomez and his husband Tom Ferguson Gomez have chaired the annual DFL gala for years, but this year is their first time overseeing a virtual program.
“I’ve had friends say I don’t seem too worried,” he said. “I’m like, well, I’ve already been through something similar, something that was killing us and we didn’t know what it was. With AIDS, we had to learn to navigate the unknown, the fear.”
DFL 2020 (August 10-14) will feature past performances followed by an August 15 world premiere finale choreographed by Hanna Brictson. It will also feature work by internationally renowned choreographer Randy Duncan, whose joy-infused 1994 ensemble piece “Lean on Me” is prominently posted on Chicago Dancers United website. “Who’d have thought something I created more than 20 years ago would hold so much resonance today?” Duncan said.
Duncan has thoughts for dancers staggering under the fist of COVID.
“I tell dancers to hold on, better days are coming. We will get back. You can’t let the despair swallow you up. Do what you can. Do classes in a park or wherever if your apartment is too small. But most of all, have faith. Believe,” he said.
As the assistant director of Free Street Theater’s Wasted, Sebastian Olayo (alter ego: drag queen Cindy Nero) had to adapt fast when COVID shut down in-person rehearsals of a youth-devised exploration of environmental racism. The production Olayo describes as a mash-up of docudrama, John Oliver's Last Week Tonight, and an SNL skit was in rehearsal when the shutdown came.
“Some teens expressed being overwhelmed and ready to give up,” Olayo said. “We told them, yes, we might feel hopeless or helpless, but we are not at a standstill. We are making a fully formed new work that we will share with the world. We’re doing more work than anyone on Broadway right now. I am proud to say we didn’t lose anyone. They all honored the ensemble and the work they’d already put in.”
If anyone knows about keeping the faith in COVID times, it’s Meghan Murphy. The cabaret artist was on a ship in the middle of the Indian Ocean when countries started closing their borders due to COVID-19. After failed attempts to dock in both Sri Lanka and India, the ship eventually stopped at Oman. Murphy headed home, and began work on Adventures from a Broad, a Patreon series that follows the singer as she traipses the world from the ruins of Rome to the tropics of Tanzania, the travelogue punctuated by numbers from a nightclub act that’s played from Broadway to Boystown. She’s donating a chunk of the proceeds to Brave Space Alliance, the first Black-led, trans-led LGBTQ center on the south side.
“It’s giving me purpose in this time of, ‘OK, what are we supposed to do now? Because live theater isn’t going to happen for a minute,’” she said of the project. With theaters including the Mercury and iO announcing permanent closures, finding that purpose is paramount, she said.
“I think the Mercury closing could be a precursor,” she added. “That doesn’t mean art is going anywhere. And whereas I do believe theater isn’t going anywhere, we simply cannot collectively continue in the same way theater has been operating in recent years. We must diversify the stories, elect more leadership positions to BIPOC, and honor and give power, not just responsibility, to the actual people making the art. It’s time to pass the torch and redesign the whole thing.” v