She Like Girls

Teenage lovers learn dangerous lessons in a new play.

When playwright Chisa Hutchinson first heard about Sakia Gunn—the 15-year-old Newark lesbian who was stabbed to death in 2003 after rebuffing a two-man come-on while waiting for a bus—it was a full two years after the fact. It's because the incident was so underreported, coupled with Hutchinson's location at the time in Pennsylvania, where she was teaching at a Quaker boarding school.

When playwright Chisa Hutchinson first heard about Sakia Gunn—the 15-year-old Newark lesbian who was stabbed to death in 2003 after rebuffing a two-man come-on while waiting for a bus—it was a full two years after the fact. It's because the incident was so underreported, coupled with Hutchinson's location at the time in Pennsylvania, where she was teaching at a Quaker boarding school. Either way, when she heard about the hate crime, through a gay-youth advocate who had come to speak at her school, she was shaken to the core—not to mention profoundly inspired.

"I wrote the play as a sort of valentine to her life," says Hutchinson, 29, creator of She Like Girls, which runs through the end of the month. "It's hard enough living when you're poor and black and a woman. But then to be a lesbian and have to be hit on by these guys?"

A student of dramatic writing at New York University, the playwright's past works have tackled topics about race, urban poverty and baby theft. As a youth, the Queens native was raised by a foster mom in Newark, and that geographic bond—along with Hutchinson's own bisexual identity—further drew her to explore the Gunn story.

"I was affected by the fact that she died just getting comfortable with who she was," Hutchingson adds. "It was all snuffed out."

In She Like Girls—which first ran through the Lark Play Development Center before being picked up by its current Working Man's Clothes Productions—Hutchinson keeps only the essence of the Gunn story to create a fast-paced, poignant, often funny work of fiction. At its center is Kia Clark (played by Karen Eilbacher), a student at an inner-city high school who is startled to learn that her sexy, outgoing crush, Marisol Feliciano (Karen Sours), is a lesbian. They begin a sweetly awkward teen romance—under the watchful eyes of homophobic classmates, skeptical friends, horrified parents and one supportive gay teacher—and become more and more emboldened, until the drama's unsurprisingly tragic conclusion.

Hutchinson says that the murder in the final scene made it challenging to get the play produced. "I would get asked, 'Does she have to get shot in the end?' Uh, yeah. Kind of," she says, determined not to shy away from the story's painful lesson. Creating the scene, though, was a challenge for everyone, she adds. "I feel gutted every time I see that," she says. "It's hard to watch." She credits director Jared Culverhouse's careful hand for making it both powerful and subtle all at once.

"We used a lot of improvisation, and really worked on finding the realistics of the situation," Culverhouse recalls. "It was intense. There were a couple of rehearsals where [Eilbacher] had to take a break and cry for a while."

If the play can bring people "a heightened sense of sympathy," Hutchinson will consider it successful. "That's all I ask," she says.

She Like Girls is at the Ohio Theater through Dec 30.

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