Claire of Playhouse on the Square reflects on Q&A's latest performance
Eugene has asked me to share some reflections about Q&A’s recent production, ‘Over, Under, and Thru the Rainbow.’ I learned so much during the process of our most recent production that I don’t even know where to begin. I was intimidated and excited to take over Q&A in September even though I had been involved since 2015. I knew that I wanted to grow the number of youth, so I reached out to Memphis Area Gay Youth (MAGY), OUTMemphis, MidSouth Pride, and Bridge Builders’ Pride Coallition to connect with their youth about us. Prior to our workshop/devising period, I offered an information meeting with dinner and then a generalized workshop with dinner so that youth didn’t have to commit to being in a production but could still come see what we’re all about. Through these things, Q&A did grow from 8 youth to 15 youth. This could have been from word of mouth, since we’re in our third year, but I do feel that these methods of reaching out in the community certainly impacted our growth.
If you were at the PYTA conference last year, you saw Q&A present ‘Pass the Peas.’ We received feedback after that performance that stumped me, but was absolutely necessary. We were called out on not addressing race. Initially, when I heard this, I only saw a wall standing in my way. I didn’t know how to handle that particular feedback, especially since we are basically all white. If you were at the conference, obviously you recognized that race relations/divisions are a major issue in Memphis, similar to the rest of the country, but we’re also unique because of the contentious history we have as a city. We have a history of whites oppressing the black community that isn’t going anywhere. We also have a very proud black community that takes pride in working together and promoting the black community. I felt that if I recruited based on a demographic that it would be disingenuous. I also didn’t want to expect our one troupe member of color to take on the responsibility of representing an entire culture’s perspective. So, my first thought was that it would be almost impossible for Q&A to include addressing race in our productions.
A little history that I hope you’ll find relevant, I grew up in Memphis’s public schools which are very diverse and majority black. I’m a third generation Memphian, which means that my Grandparents had a shop on South Main about a block and a half from the Lorraine Motel and heard the gunshot that killed Dr. Martin Luther King. My Mom went to one of the first ‘bussing’ schools. This is all to say that race and conversations about race have always been in my life, as for most Memphians. I’m, personally, fortunate enough to be from a part of the community that truly supports equality but we are in the south and racism is certainly alive and well. My artistic bubble of a community had me blinded to the lack of representation and conversations about race within Q&A. So, this call out about ‘Pass the Peas’ was such a healthy thing to be called out on but I didn’t know what we were going to do. I diversified the demographic of people leading our workshops but I still wasn’t sure how to address it in the show.
Our students decided they wanted to talk about historic LGBTQ+ figures in the show. They were given a list of twenty names and they had to choose one and research that person. I tried to make sure that the list provided options and representation for as many cultures/identities/sexualities as possible. My white youth were drawn to talking about the white figures. Through several socratic efforts of trying to lead them to talking about people of other races, they kept falling short. This was where I reluctantly started influencing their choices more and more.
We only had 8 weeks, which if you were wondering, is not enough time to allow youth to navigate through an organic devising process, so as the facilitator it felt necessary to take over more of the script writing than before. Our process prior to this year had been very organic, trying to allow the youth to take the show whatever direction they felt motivated to. I broke from this, in some senses, and wrote most of this script myself. The script is still absolutely a representation of their choices, characters and improv workshops, but the formulating of how it all worked together and some of the ‘bigger picture moments’ were added by me.
The other part that was not ‘youth generated,’ were discussions of Gladys Bentley and Bayard Rustin. We had to decide how we were going to stage scenes with or about them with out 'white-washing' it. Part of our solution was that they visit Harry Hansberry’s Clam House where Gladys Bently was a headliner. We had her music playing while they discussed her. One of the lines in that scene is “Also, we’re at a club in Harlem and all of the people are white, this is not accurate at all.” The response to that line is a repetition of a devise used earlier in the show where the character says, “To use your words, it’s theatre, anything can happen.” This was our first acknowledgment that we were basically all white. You could feel the audience begin to shift, slightly uncomfortably.
Then we had to figure out how to talk about Bayard Rustin. Rustin gave speeches in Memphis during the Sanitation Worker’s Strike. I searched for footage because originally we were going to use projections and let him speak for himself. The projections ended up not possible. So in a more presentational/dramatic interp style, the youth delivered snips from interviews and speeches that Rustin made. That scene led into a ‘call to action’ piece that was primarily written by one of the youth. Also, our youth who is a Queer person of color wrote a piece about representation that she performed between the Gladys Bently and Bayard Rustin scene.
I hope this does not come across as: ‘look at Q&A we talked about race, give us a cookie.' I wanted share this as an honest commentary, in case any other troupes were grappling with how to be more intersectional in regard to race. But also, that I think there is something to be said for taking the reigns as a facilitator. My youth would not have led themselves to acknowledging or talking about race, so I had to make a decision and take them a direction that they were not organically heading too.
I have so much more to say about our process in general, our youth wrote original music for the show and some great monologues, but I have taken enough of your time. If you would like to discuss anything further with me, please reach out!