So, peoples, what did you do Friday evening? I went to the theater.
Yeah, Male Mode Me took in a show Friday night. And, yeah, I was tempted to get all dolled up as Allison, but a tight time frame after the end of my work day prevented that. Still, I wanted to take in a show and support queer-oriented theater.
Friday was the second-to-last staging of “Queer Shorts: Unity.” Every year since 2006, Stage Q, the Madison-based LGBT-oriented theater company, has presented a showcase of short plays, usually 5 to 10 minutes in length and culled from a nationwide call for submissions, that showcase LGBT themes, characters, performers, and writers.
Each “Queer Shorts” edition aims to have a unifying theme with its selected plays. Last year, the theme was “Queer Love” as the event coincided with the event’s scheduling in February, the month of Valentine’s Day. This year, with “Queer Shorts” back in its near-traditional June slot, the theme was “Unity.” As Stage Q mentions here and here, the “Unity” theme is meant to help unify the LGBTQ community and showcase its “amazing diversity” in an era of tumult and uncertainty that face our community in particular and our nation and world in general, using “stories that inspire us and unite us as a common people.”
So, did the 12 segments of “Queer Shorts: Unity” (well, 9 segments with a 10th spread out over the course of the show) fit in with the intended theme of the evening? Well, let’s think about one of the definitions of word “unity”: “A relation of all the parts or elements of a work constituting a harmonious whole and producing a single general effect.” Considering that, the segments all contributed to a harmonious whole of showcasing the LGBT community and entertaining the audience. But each segment should be considered on not just their own merits but how close they came to meeting a definition of the word “unity.” So with that, let’s examine (almost) chronologically how the playlets not only, well, played out but also how close their content came to the “unity” theme.
“Valentine’s Day Dance” (1st play of the evening). “I think I might become polyamorous” was the night’s first line of dialog, and it came from Ally, a teenage girl debating not only their sexual identity but who to bring to her high school Valentine’s Day dance. Along comes a girl she had a makeout session with a few years earlier, and sparks fly between the two. A few dated references to video games and Glee, but the characters really do click.
Did it meet the “Unity” theme? It met the definition of “two becoming one,” with Ally realizing that her perfect date for the dance is the girl she kissed once before and kisses again as the stage lights fade to black. There’s also displays of two teenage traits, awkwardness and vulnerability, which I’m sure audience members of any age can relate to. With that, score a point for unity between audience and subject matter.
“Family Space” (3rd play of the evening) has more awkwardness on display, not of the teenage type shown above but of the “gee, you look familiar” type. It involves a man named Adrian who brings his new girlfriend, Sam, to dinner at the home of his sister, Tori, and her partner. But then Sam and Tori realize that they dated each other in college a decade earlier. Recollections of past feelings and understandings of the past being in the past ensue.
Did it meet the “Unity” theme? What also ensues is Adrian’s struggles with his own sexual identity and his relations with his and Tori’s mother. Sure, Tori has been much more sure about her lesbian identity, but Adrian has been generally closeted about his bisexuality, with his mother not being entirely accepting. I’m sure a lot of people in the audience could relate with their own struggles of pondering their own sexual or gender identities and coming out to others. Score another point for unity between audience and subject matter.
“Ace in the Whole” was the 4th play of the evening and by far the most experimental. It was also the second-strongest segment of the evening (I’ll get to the strongest later). Seated front and center is a person named Ace, who’s scrolling through a sea of Facebook posts recited for the audience by a quartet of actors lined up behind Ace. The reciting of the posts, complete with exclamations of “Like!” and “Love!” and “Share!” start out comical. But then Ace starts going through blog posts and comments that offer research and opinions on sexual and gender identity; not all of these opinions are supportive, and some of them allegedly come from LGBT+ people. Ace’s head is swimming in these posts, as represented by the actors literally circling around them as they recite these opinions, and they literally leave Ace screaming in frustration and despair. At least a note of grace and relief comes at the end when one of the actors literally bends down and taps Ace by the shoulder,
reciting a post telling Ace that “there are people in the LGBT+ community who will support you and appreciate you no matter what your identification may be.”
Did it meet the “Unity” theme? Most definitely, and most clearly through that last bit of grace. There are still LGBT+ youth out there still struggling with just who they are (Ace is suggested to be a young character) and how their friends and loved ones react to them, meaning there’s still a need for people in our community to “come together” (another definition of unity) and support the younger generations.
“Write This Way” (5th play of the evening) was not as experimental as “Ace in the Whole” but still wasn’t quite as traditional in staging as the other plays. Here, a writer who’s been literally sitting at her laptop for 137 straight hours (or was it 137 straight days?) sees an undeveloped character literally spring to life and ask the writer “well, who am I?” From there the writer gives this character a name, Emily, and writes and rewrites her story, taking Emily from dowdy yet stunning to raven-haired and nice looking, from an office professional to a construction worker, and from a cisgender woman to “a girl who was once a guy.” A yet-to-be-written male character comes in about halfway through to help form his own story, including how his attraction to Emily was affected by her male-to-female transition.
Did it meet the “Unity” theme? Hard to say, though the actress portraying Emily takes her from sassy and strong to vulnerable and confused in a matter of minutes, helping to connect with the audience’s pondering of “well, who am I?”
“Defenders of the Tender Gender Bender” (6th play, and the last before intermission) saw two moms help their precocious child Sandy (the “tender gender bender” of the title) answer the question of just which gender they are. It’s an important question for the hermaphrodite Sandy, for the school year is starting and Sandy’s school building is so old that it cannot accommodate washrooms for the gender-nonconforming. Unfortunately, the school won’t accept an answer of “but I want to be both” from Sandy, so their moms strain to guide Sandy to a set choice… which Sandy still cannot determine before bedtime. A combination of sweet performances and writing that treats this serious subject matter with grace, humor, and lightheartedness.
Did it meet the “Unity” theme? Most definitely. The “bathroom question,” and the broad question of gender identity in schools, is still a serious topic that goes unresolved in most places, even with victories by the likes of Ash Whitaker. Until every bathroom is gender neutral (perhaps an impossible goal for sure), there will still be that need for parents of gender-nonconforming children to “come together” with their kids and discuss which bathroom to use; how to build bridges with cis-gender people; and how to overcome the unsympathetic actions of school administrators, teachers, and (more importantly) students.
“Plus One” (7th play of the evening) was a dialog between Shari and Deanna, a lesbian couple who’ve made a scene at the reception celebrating Deanna’s brother’s nuptials. Or to be more precise, Shari made a scene by slugging Deanna’s grandmother over a homophobic comment. What follows is a lament by Shari of not having the support of her family when she came out of the closet, unlike what Deanna received from her family (bigoted grandmothers with black eyes notwithstanding). A play that’s supported by character background and meaningful dialog.
Did it meet the “Unity” theme? Well, it ends with Shari resolving any lingering resentment she has with Deanna or Deanna’s family. It’s unclear how much support Shari has received from her family, but at least she has a woman who loves her and, in a sign of unity, an extended family who will accept her (again, bigoted grandmothers with black eyes notwithstanding).
“Duderonomy” was the 9th play of the evening; it was also, unfortunately, the weakest. Here, we have a quartet of drunk guys at their class reunion sitting outside the men’s room, swigging beers, and shooting the [expletive deleted]. But along comes a guy who since high school has officially transitioned from the girl he had presented as when he went to school with them. The dudes try their darndest to relate to this 5th man in and overcome any lingering concerns about his current state and thoughts of how darn hot he used to look as a girl. That the playlet doesn’t end with harsh words and suggestions of lingering transphobia from these stereotypical bros leaves one thinking, “yeah, it wouldn’t end this way in real life.” Despite the nice performances, this was a big swing and a miss.
Did it meet the “Unity” theme? If your definition of unity is “a bunch of drunk guys shooting the [expletive deleted], well, I guess this playlet was for you.
“Role Perversal” (10th play of the evening). Here, we have a man and wife discussing their day as if they were some happily married couple from an all-too-saccharine 1950s sitcom, with their offspring coming in to deliver lines of “man alive, you two are weird.” But that greeting from their child is meant to address the elephant in the room: Mom has stepped into Dad’s clothing and role, and vice versa. Corny as it may be, Mom and Dad are only doing it to gain empathy and show some support for a child who recently came out as genderqueer. A somewhat meta ending only adds to the silliness of the playlet.
Did it meet the “Unity” theme? Well, again, it did look corny, but at least Mom and Dad are trying to gain an understanding of their child and their gender-nonconforming world. And they don’t just show it, they flat-out say it near the end. “Unity” can also mean relating or showing solidarity with someone, so it does fit the night’s overall theme.
“There Goes the Neighborhood” (11th play of the evening). “Oh, my god! Our new neighbors are straight!” That’s the concern of a lesbian couple and their flamboyant male neighbor when they discover a new (and, yes, straight and cis-gender) couple moving into a neighborhood that, the audience is led to believe, has been an exclusively LGBT conclave. At least one of the couple gains a level head and considers the possibility that these new neighbors may not be so bad after all… which appears to be the case when they stop by for a “getting to know you” visit. Deliciously played characters are incorporated in this addressing of the ludicrous “not in my backyard” issue. Speaking of which…
Did it meet the “Unity” theme? Well, I hate to go on a tangent at this point, but to the white, Anglo-Saxon, cis-gender, Protestant, conservative, straight audience who watched this playlet, I ask you: How does it feel to have your “fear of others” argument portrayed for the silliness that it is? Oh, you didn’t see it because you don’t want anything to do with the LGBT community? Well, shame on you, for we live our lives the same way you do. Just like you, we work jobs, drive cars, pay bills, own homes, and raise children to be good people. And if these particular denizens of the queer community (in the geographical sense) can overcome their concerns and welcome you into their neighborhood, the least you could do is to overcome your own prejudices. Do that, and we can become more than just a gender or sexual identity. We can become united as a community.
“Open Mic” (2nd, 8th, and 12th plays of the evening). I list these last because, for one, this three-parter brought up the rear of the show (well, the last part of it did). I also refrain from calling it a play because these were three independent segments featuring one person (played by Shannon Harper) in front of a stand-up microphone delivering three totally different monologues:
- The first was a straight-up poetry performance that communicated shyness and love of another person, with Shannon presenting it as if she was performing poetry for the first time, shy and reserved yet gaining confidence. (I can sympathize.)
- Part two featured Shannon literally performing “sock puppetry,” her right hand covered by a white athletic sock representing the conservative patriarchy who dismisses those like Shannon’s character who identify as queer, black, and attracted to women (giving her three strikes in life, sadly).
- Part three finds Shannon representing someone who saw the protest movements of the 1960s (civil rights, anti-war, Stonewall) and thinks, “ah, those were the days” of standing up against conservative authority. It’s a movement she emphasizes is still needed today, what with the rise of those who hold beliefs that should have remained dead, awoken by a leader who acts virtuous but is anything but. This was the strongest segment of the entire evening.
In all three “Open Mic” monologues (the last one especially), Shannon delivers her lines with power and passion that you’d think she wrote those herself (in actuality, MG Perrin has the writing credit in the program). Whatever the case, “Open Mic” was a nice yet important way to break up the overall humorous flow of the evening.
Did they meet the “Unity” theme? Yes, especially Part 3, which felt as if it were a call to arms. That last poem had its own theme, one of being vigilant and invincible against those who want to keep down and shut out the LGBT+ community. During a fast-paced, mostly lighthearted evening, it was a capstone that reminded the audience that despite all our community has gained, it’s a dark time outside the Bartell Theatre right now. So we’ve got to stay together, and to stay strong together, for evil will divide us permanently if we don’t.
I noted in the above paragraph that “Queer Shorts: Unity” was pretty fast paced. Indeed, the whole evening, from the opening greeting to the final bows, clocked in at just an economical fraction above 2 hours. What also struck me was the use of a different stage for “Queer Shorts” at the Bartell, which is divided into two stages. Previous “Queer Shorts” performances, or at least the ones I’ve attended, were held in the Drury Stage, a traditional theater setup that seats around 200. But since the Drury had been reserved for a more elaborate show this month, Stage Q staged “Queer Shorts: Unity” in the black-box-styled Evjue Stage, which despite having a smaller audience capacity (90 people at maximum) is versatile enough for any type of stage setup. The Evjue is also intimate, with the audience members literally at eye level with and a few feet from the performers. This combination seemed to emphasize both the traditional sparse setups of “Queer Shorts” playlets (i.e. wooden benches for tables, seats, etc.) and the “Unity” theme Stage Q was going for this year. Even without the relative grandeur of the Drury that this popular event merits every year, a smaller space was a fine substitute.
What Stage Q must also have been going for with this year’s “Queer Shorts” that I easily picked up during the evening (and that this review also picked up on) was a sub-theme of trans inclusion. By my count, 5 of the 12 segments featured some sort of character outside the traditional trans binary. Something else I noticed, and this may have been a subconscious move on Stage Q’s part, was an emphasis of gay or bisexual female characters: Excluding the 3 segments of “Open Mic” (which featured or suggested one queer female), 5 playlets prominently incorporated women who were clearly in or open to being in relationships with other women; any cis-gender gay or bisexual characters were included mainly in ensemble or peripheral roles.
As I publish this (Saturday afternoon), “Queer Shorts: Unity” is having its final performance. Come September, Stage Q will begin a new season of plays, which will include a production of Cabaret; a “fully immersive” original production that recreates the night of the police raid on New York’s Stonewall Inn, an event that sparked the modern LGBT+ movement; and, speaking of Stonewall, a 14th edition of “Queer Shorts” one year from now, one whose theme will be stories about how the LGBT community has risen in the half-century since Stonewall and where we’re headed. I’m betting that it will be another enjoyable, at times thought-provoking, evening at the theater.