Theater scene pulls audiences together in time of divisiveness

"This is a time for theatre. It is a time to come together to celebrate, to question, to share stories that fill our hearts and minds. It is a time to learn about the lives of others whose experiences are different than our own. In a world of increasing isolation, how can we better feed our souls than by bonding with friend and neighbor and sharing an evening of laughter or tears? We must come together; we can do that in the theatre."  -- Joan Herrington

In a time when some political and cultural forces try to divide by instigating confrontation with an "other," the Kalamazoo theater world is encouraging open and non-antagonistic views of other lives on the safe space of the stage.

Joan Herrington, Western Michigan University's Theatre Department chair, wrote the above quote introducing the university's 2017-'18 season. 

We ask Herrington, What inspired it?

"When I look out at the world, I see division -- divisiveness," she responds. "There is a new and frightening energy-infusing fear of the other -- hatred for what is different. We are more encouraged to dismiss rather than engage with those who are not like us and opportunities to do otherwise are becoming rare."

She continues, "For me, theater is a lightning rod of empowerment for young people. It enables them to see that they have power -- that their voices can move and inspire others. And those voices must speak out for tolerance, forgiveness, inclusion. For the artist and the audience, theater is an act of engaged citizenship."

Queer Theatre Kalamazoo

Second Wave is beginning a semi-regular look at theaters in Kalamazoo that include, explicitly or implied, "acts of engaged citizenship" in their spaces.

The first theater we're looking at has been around since 2013, and is now cleaning up an old rec-room/storage space in the basement of the First Baptist Church downtown, creating a new home for itself.

Church staff pointed us in the right direction, saying carefully, "Now, they're called -- I don't want this to sound the wrong way -- but they call themselves Queer Theatre Kalamazoo."

Downstairs, theater founder/executive producer Laura Henderson was preparing for rehearsal of the space's first production, "Mama's Girls," a drama about a family coming to grips with a transgender offspring.

"I have people I work with now who, in 2013 when they first heard the words 'Queer Theatre Kalamazoo' -- 'queer,' right?" she says emphasizing queer as if it were shocking, which it might have been at the time. "Which for me is normalization through exposure, which is why I brought that term forward as an umbrella term (for people who are LGBT)," Henderson says. "They were really uncomfortable at the beginning. And now they're some of our biggest supporters."

That cast of "Mama's Girls."When they hear that Queer Theatre Kalamazoo is moving into the church basement, "people are very surprised -- First Baptist Church, what?!? Pastor Dave (Nichols) came down, said, 'let me know what I can do to help you out.' They're totally supportive, they know our mission." 

Is that mission to help bring various people of the community together?

"There are a couple of driving forces behind this theater. One is to create a safe space for audience members, for artists, for anyone whether you're LGBT or not," Henderson says. "And then we really want to do works that thread conversation. But it's an approachable form of social justice."

As they did at their previous homes -- Fire, Park Trades Building, First Congregational -- QTK will hold after-show talks. "We've dealt with faith and religion, government and ageism, homophobia, and rape and all sorts of really important issues that need to be addressed, and it's really brought the community together just through finding a voice that's not normally represented, that's what we're here for." 

Gender-fluid theater

Henderson is joined by Jen Hebben, director of "Mama's Girls." Hebben has been active in local theater since she was a child performing in the Kalamazoo Civic's Black Theatre program.

Of "Mama's Girls," she says, "It's a story that's not told a lot right now."

By award-winning Michigan/North Carolina playwright Marilynn Barner Anselmi, the script shows what happens when the boy in a set of biologically male and female twins sees herself as a girl. Her mother is supportive, but father thinks it's just a phase a boy should grow out of.

Hebben was motivated to work on this script because "I have a 17-year-old and a 12-year-old. And last summer both of them had non-binary friends, and this was a brand new concept to me. I didn't know that there was this conversation happening with the younger generations about 'maybe you're not this or that, maybe you're something untitled.'" 

This new gender-fluid talk, about an issue that's not that new -- people who don't fit social constructions of male/female -- has been educational for Hebben.

"We have a 17-year-old in the cast, she gave us a wonderful breakdown, drew a diagram, about people who don't identify as male or female, or people who are a little of this or a little of that." 

This is a topic that needs to be brought to an audience, "because that vocabulary is already out there and being used. Maybe it's not being used at the dinner table, but it's being used in the classroom," she says.

Place of connection

Both Hebben and Henderson grew up in smaller towns -- Hebben in Plainwell and Henderson in Otsego. They know that in more-conservative areas the word "queer" is used in a very different way that is used by QTK.

"This is another way to make people feel included; we learn the new language, we recognize that the word 'queer' has been reclaimed as a positive umbrella term -- it isn't that mean, nasty cutdown that it used to be," Hebben says.

Henderson says of Otsego, "There was just no representation, no diversity at all, no resource there." 

Her path to creating QTK came out of a masters thesis that focused on LGBT suicide prevention, "using media and performance as a catalyst for social change, finding a place of connection, a safe space," and developing "eLLe Kalamazoo," an episodic lesbian dramedy for the stage.

"I was involved with 'eLLe' and it was a lot of really, just great, confident, amazing, talented women who also happen to be in relationships with other women, which for me, having come from a small town, I was still developing all of that." 

Henderson had no "place of connection" as she was growing up. She is now determined to make QTK everything she was missing from her world while growing up.

Theater works to form connections, Henderson says, because "it's a show. It's a nice soft approach. If you are kind of questioning yourself or need a safe space, either as a performer or audience member, you want to open yourself up more."

Hebben says, "One of the things I like so much about live theater is that the viewing of it is done in community. And the hope is that one feels more liberated to discuss and explore afterwards with those people they just shared the experience with. It isn't solitary like sitting at home watching TV. The community comes together, they view this work of art, and the idea is to plant seeds, promote dialog, and maybe make some folks feel a little less 'other' in the world, because they get to see their story represented, too.”

Mark Wedel has been a freelance journalist in Southwest Michigan since 1992. He’s covered a bewildering array of subjects, including a lot of Kalamazoo theater when writing A&E pieces for the Kalamazoo Gazette, 1992-2015. His website is here.

Queer Theatre Kalamazoo
First Baptist Church,
315 W. Michigan Ave., Kalamazoo
"Mama's Girls,"
Thursday-Saturday April 19-21, 7:30 p.m.;
Saturday-Sunday April 21-22, 2 p.m.
Visit here for tickets and more information.

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