On a subway ride to nowhere in particular, two queer youths become loud to the point where it leads to a heated exchange between the teens and an older, irritated passenger. Is not even the El a safe space for queer youth anymore, one might ask? On the other hand, does a tired commuter not deserve a peaceful ride? Hard questions like these are considered, without answers, in What’s the T?, a new play written by the About Face Youth Theatre Ensemble and Sara Kerastas and opening July 20 at the Red Tape Theatre and again August 3 and 4 at the National Museum of Mexican Art.
What’s the T? is the story of Boystown at a breaking point and seen through the lens of two trans-identified youth caught in the crossfire. About Face Youth Theatre plays (previous offerings include Queertopia and The Home Project) are an intense collaboration between the company’s youth ensemble (who come from The North, South and West Sides and suburbs) and a playwright. They interweave real-life incidents and stories to create a script. That subway skirmish? Kerastas, About Face’s education director and artistic associate, witnessed it. “The play deals with very real situations that came from real-life experiences,” she says. “It doesn’t get much more recognizable than that.”
But Kerastas and company didn’t set out to write a play about tensions on Halsted Street. “We started off the process looking to do a play about trans identity, and that was our frame for a whole year,” she says of the lengthy writing process. But in summer 2011, accusations of increases in loitering and petty crimes put Boystown residents and queer youth alike on the defensive, as witnessed at a heated CAPS meeting, and the company decided to make a detour. “A lot of us went to that CAPS meeting, and a lot of our youth were getting in intense online battles with people about these issues,” she says. “We decided we are in this position to address this from an artistic standpoint, so we just adjusted what we were doing and decided to look at these issues through the frame of trans identity.”
The result is a strikingly current play about age, race, class and gender in which no side is blameless. In one scene, for example, an older, white, gay male named Bernard offends his Latino hairstylist with a casual remark fraught with racial implications. His hairstylist in turn, kind of loses his shit. “We’ve purposefully set it up so there are no bad characters,” Kerastas says. “Everyone is both right and wrong at the same time and coming from different places.”
Avid queer theatergoers might also notice a coincidental, but also timely, resemblance to the historical drama Hit the Wall, the Inconvenience theater’s spring smash about the Stonewall riots. Both plays take place on urban streets; both deal with issues of gender, class, nonconformity and community; and both are directed by young gun Eric Hoff. “Both plays ask us to examine what we’re willing to sacrifice in order to live honestly, boldly and with integrity,” Hoff says. “Both deal with the issue of living one’s truth, regardless of the consequences. And yet they’re separated by over 40 years of history. I hope that What’s The T? will bring together communities in Chicago in the name of social justice and unity.”
Unfortunately, Kerastas says, North Halsted residents were largely resistant to sharing their stories with the ensemble. That’s a shame. The greatest strength of What’s the T? is its potential to spark dialogue. Boystown residents should see it with open minds. “This isn’t a play that’s going to point a finger in your face and shame you in front of all these people,” Kerastas says. “This is an invitation to engage in a really complex moment that you’re a part of whether you realize it or not.”
What’s the T? opens July 20 at Red Tape Theatre and August 3, 4 at the National Museum of Mexican Art. See Listings.