Counting the cast and crew members, 28 students at Deerfield High School will make history this weekend as the first high school to perform the groundbreaking play, “Making Gay History: Before Stonewall.”
“Really, the show is the beginning, not the end,” says Britnee Kenyon, the school’s director of theater. “It’s not like, ‘Oh, that was cool. We were the first high school to do it. Bye.’ Our hope is the conversation doesn’t stop on November 14th when the show closes.”
The show, adapted from interviews for Eric Marcus’ book of the same name, weaves together real stories from actual pioneers of the gay rights movement.
“I really wanted Sylvia,” says senior Kai Austin, 17, of Riverwoods, who landed the role of Sylvia Rivera, a Latinx, transgender woman who called herself a drag queen. “I’ve looked up to her since middle school.”
As someone who identifies as nonbinary and bisexual, and uses the pronoun they, Kai passionately delved into Rivera’s life. “I saw my community was missing from books, so I had to do my own research,” Kai says.
“I was ready for all these unbelievable and inspiring stories,” says fellow senior and Riverwoods resident Maya Hannen, 17, who identifies as female and heterosexual, and uses the pronoun she. She portrays Billye Talmadge, a teacher and leader of an early lesbian organization during an era when that behavior was a crime.
“They were going to jail for wearing pants,” Maya says. “I saw Billye as this calm but unrelenting force.”
The interviews Marcus conducted for his book were recorded, and the students listened to those recordings to get a feel for the way these people talked. Talmadge died in 2018.
“It doesn’t matter who I am. It matters who Billye is,” Maya says. “All that matters is you have to tell the world this story.”
Rivera, who died in 2002 at age 50, led a vastly different life than the one Kai is enjoying.
“Obviously, I haven’t experienced homelessness or had to be a sex worker,” says Kai, adding the audience might be surprised by Rivera’s story. “I hope they get shocked a bit. It will do them good.”
“What is so shocking about this is the inequalities they faced,” Maya says.
Director Kenyon is working with technical director Michael Clack to stage the show in spite of the obstacles created by the pandemic restrictions. The first rehearsals were done through the online platform Zoom, with later rehearsals done at the school with students wearing masks and following social distancing guidelines.
The show will stream on ShowTix4U at 7:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. On Monday, at 6 p.m., the cast and crew will host a Zoom talkback through a link provided with the purchase of a ticket. Tickets — $5 per student, $10 general admission, and $25 for a family up to four — can be purchased through the ShowTix4U.com website.
Kenyon, who directed “1984” at Rolling Meadows High School in 2018, says she decided to do “Making Gay History: Before Stonewall” while working on her master’s degree with her mentor, Joe Salvator, an associate professor at New York University, who adapted the book into a verbatim theater performance that made its professional premiere in February. Kenyon purposely casts students to portray individuals who do not match their gender, racial or sexual identity.
As a straight teenager portraying a lesbian, Maya says the labels are not the most important thing. “The fact that you are a human with a story, that matters,” she says.
The crew, working in small groups and not sharing equipment, built the set with social distancing requirements. Filmmakers and editors Jess Kaufman and Chad Zamost, and sound designers and editors Zack Connell and Frank Montalbano, complete the streaming.
Kai is a co-leader of Spectrum, the school’s LGBTQ and Straight Alliance, and has been a member since freshman year of prideLEAD, a youth leadership group sponsored by Youth Services of Glenview/Northbrook. Maya, who wants to study journalism in college, and Kai, who plans to study zoology and environmental conservation in college, say the play is powerful enough to change lives.
“Our commitment,” Kenyon says, “is to tell these stories.”
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November 12, 2020 at 06:19AM