Diversity in a city like Chicago is hardly uncommon. But when tempers flare and citizens of the city are faced with oppression on the basis of race, class, gender and sexual orientation, activists do what they can to tackle the issue head on. That’s why Sara Kerastas and the folks at About Face Theater have created this Summer’s youth casted play, entitled “What’s the T?”
The play features vignettes that tell the stories of Chicago’s transgender and LGBT youth as they navigate life in the city. Led by the character, Ms. Ma, cast members engage in dialogue about the intersections of police brutality, race, gender and youth homelessness in Boystown.
Director, Eric Hoff brings us into the world of these youth in a way that many of them know best — through social media.
“As queer people, we constantly negotiate what it means to be a community, and what our chosen-family will be … Sometimes, we have to stand our ground and fight for safe space,” writes Hoff in his program statement.
After the presentation of the play, Precious Davis of Center on Halsted was in attendance to lead a post-show discussion with a panel of guests about some of the issues brought to light in the performance. On the panel: Alexis Martinez, Chicago Dyke March, TGIF (Trans GendernonConforming Intersex Freedom); Andre Perez, Trans Oral History Project; Elias Krell, PhD Candidate, Performance Studies, Northwestern University; and Stephanie Gentry-Fernandez, volunteer and community partners coordinator at Broadway Youth Center.
The panel answered questions about the criminalization of trans-identified people, the fears of being turned away from biological and community-family and “passing” in the transgender community.
Audience members talked about how well the play’s creator allowed for the showcasing of vulnerability among its players. Kerastas pointed out that in the two years it took to develop the play, a lot of things happened.
“We had developed a theme which was trans-identity. We have these Saturday workshops which are open to youth ages 14 to 23, during that time all that stuff happened in Boystown,” said Kerastas. “We made the decision to not ignore it. In the play, Boystown is a character, Chicago is a character and had that stuff not happened, you probably wouldn’t have seen the play reflect that.”
For those who might be out of the know, last summer, incidents of violence in the Boystown neighborhood were answered with CAPS meetings, where community residents demanded that Center On Halsted to be accountable for the youth contingent that they invited to Boystown with their programming.
Residents attributed the rise in violence to the youth who they felt were not from the area and decided to form a coalition, Take Back Boystown, in an effort to relieve the neighborhood of the plague of violence that they felt stemmed directly from the youth who attended COH for its programming.
In the play, we see this reflected when one of the youth voices her frustration at being kicked out of the ice cream shop while waiting for her friends to meet her. “I’m tired of this, he told me, ‘these tables are for customers only,’” said the character Jude, played by Jade Ryin.
“My thing is, we’re still tiptoeing around issues of race,” said panelist Alexis Martinez. “For feminine people of color, there’s a war going on.”
The play did broach the topic of issues related to of how transgender people deal with law enforcement, but not from a racial perspective.
“If a trans girl is being arrested in Chicago, they make her take off her hair, they put her in a men’s cell – that’s not safe,” said Davis.