Last summer's What's the T? was an event. It's rare in the Chicago queer community that everyone is talking about one thing (if so, it's often in a bad way), but the play was that kind of phenomenon. It brought us together, for a brief yet beatific moment. It was like going to church.
For those who didn't catch one of its many sold-out shows, What's the T? was a play developed to highlight the intersections of racism, classism and sexism in Boystown -- through the lens of youth experiences. The play followed a youth who was kicked out of his house for being trans and came to Boystown for the resources and solace it promised, finding the neighborhood as prone to oppression and gentrification as it is to providing respite.
To develop What's the T?, lead writer Sara K. worked with youth to "develop characters and storylines," bringing lived experience into the theatre space. In devising workshops held throughout the year, K. said that the writers and youth would work together to "rip apart scenes or build on them in beautiful ways." It wasn't just that the stories included in What's the T? were true. For an audience that experiences these issues every day, the stories needed to feel real.
For AboutFace Education Associate Nic Kay, that dialogue has a crucial impact on the youth AboutFace works with. In our email correspondence, Kay told me:
I often talk with queer and trans-identified young people about the discrimination they face or current events and often I find that they have been made to feel that their thoughts don't matter. Through the work AFYT does with young people I believe we encourage them to think critically about their chooses, current events and the TQBLG community. AFYT provides a safe space for young people to become strong leaders who can talk/perform about their lives and the things around them.
According to Sara K., who also serves as the AboutFace Education Director, the weaving together of youth and adult perspectives fostered an "interesting dynamic" between the company and the community. AboutFace attempted to speak to business owners on North Halsted, hoping to bring their viewpoints into the dialogue. Youth performers went from shop to shop, asking to interview business leaders and shop managers. Sara K. said, "No one would talk to us. Everybody was scared."
Because of that, there weren't a lot of adult voices in the play, and there were few white characters. One, Bernard, particularly stood out -- as a representation of suburban privilege. For Sara K., it was important to "know what that character was coming from," as the character could have been a stereotype of a mean white person. K. stated, "We all participate and inherit many systems of oppression. It's not taught to us to think critically about them. We wanted to start the conversation at that level."
According to Sara K., What's the T? is "an effort to get people to think critically about their behavior and to think critically about their identity in the community."
Nic Kay agreed:
After What's The T?, a lot of people in the queer and trans community were left asking... questions of each other like: 'How do we move forward as a community to rectify these issues of ageism, racism and discrimination in the TQBLG community? How do we create spaces for TQBLG people of all ages to congregate and learn form each other? How can we be allies to each other?'
In order to further ask those questions, AboutFace is raising funds to put on What's the T? again this summer to "show this project is worth it." After last summer, Sara K. said that AboutFace was getting requests from all over the community to do a "remount," which will take place in the second floor loft of Victory Gardens.
According to K., last summer's final show was cancelled due to a power outage. Their last show was a back-to-back staging, and a storm knocked out their power three-quarters of the way into the first performance. However, the cast played through the darkness, never skipping a beat. Sara K. called it a "beautiful moment of radical, celebratory energy."
Kicking off the celebration with a party, AboutFace will be throwing an all-ages queer dance event at Bottom Lounge. Called "The Drop," the party was co-organized by AboutFace's Youth Task Force and the Chances Dances DJ collective.
When I spoke to Justin Mitchell (who performs under the name DJ Swaguerilla) of Chances, Mitchell told me that the youth were adamant the space not be ageist. As Chances is a 21+ space, I asked Mitchell if that was a challenge for their organizers. Mitchell paused for a moment to reflect and then affirmed my question, "Absolutely. Creating an inclusive space is always a challenge. Creating an all-ages inclusive space is even moreso."
For Sara K., creating spaces for youth is important as gentrification and security in Boystown are slowly "[pushing] them out of the neighborhood," while "the organizations that serve them [experience] a similar policing." K. said that "youth have the same needs adults do." They need "community, culture and an amazing dance party." In the process of bringing this event to fruition, it was especially "important for not to think about it as us giving them this space." It was about working together to build it.
"The Drop" kicks off on April 20 at 6:30 p.m. and runs until 10:30, featuring dances and performances from Chicago queer artists like Shea Coulea. According to K., it might sound early to adult attendees, but it's "not that unusual for youth to have a rocking dance party early in the evening." For the adults who want to support youth, K. said, "If you're an ally, you'll step up and come kiki with them at 6:30. Just being there will show you care."
This post originally appeared on WBEZ.