7 LGBTQ Theater Makers to Pay Attention to Right Now

by Merryn Johns

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Wednesday September 2, 2020

A scene from S. Asher Gelman's "safeword."
A scene from S. Asher Gelman's "safeword."  (Source:Mati Gelman)

COVID-19 may have temporarily brought the curtain down, but that doesn't mean you should forget the talented artists continuing to break boundaries and create new works. From playwrights to performance artists, from Broadway to beyond, these seven artists represent the legacy of queer representation in the arts, and no virus is going to stop them.

S. Asher Gelman, New York City
Director, choreographer, actor, dancer, playwright, and producer, Gelman has a knack for putting the lives of gay men on stage. Through his production company, Midnight Theatricals, he produced and directed his first original play, "Afterglow," which ran for 14 months Off-Broadway at the Davenport Theater. A play about a married gay male couple who open up their relationship and then deal with the emotional and physical ramifications, the play also ran in London. It was due to have its West Coast premiere when the pandemic struck.

In 2019, Gelman's second play, "safeword.", ran Off-Broadway and similarly explored the queer psyche and its boundaries. Originally from Maryland, Asher lived in Israel, where he was a founder of The Stage, Tel Aviv's premier English language performing arts organization, and served as its first Artistic Director from 2013 to 2016.

Donterrio Johnson  (Source: Zeke Dolezalek)

Donterrio Johnson, Pride Arts, Chicago
Pride Arts in Chicago named Donterrio Johnson as its new artistic director and we're excited to see what the actor/director will bring to this LGBTQ theater institution formerly known as Pride Film and Plays. Johnson released a mission statement on July 16, outlining a three-part initiative to "rebrand, restructure and reignite the creative spark of this company."

Johnson is under some pressure after the departure of former artistic director David Zaks at a critical moment in America's embrace of diversity and inclusion - against the backdrop of a pandemic. In the context of Black Lives Matter protests nationwide, Johnson is aware of the excitement and the sense of risk surrounding "a young black guy coming in" and shaping the future of the Windy City's queer theater scene.

"I'm starting to create a queer theater company that is modern and right now," said Johnson in a recent interview with The Broadway Blog. "We're the only [theater] company in Chicago being led by a young black man. I'm excited to do shows that not only tell the plight of being gay but also the joy. I want to bring a different oeuvre of queerness to the stage."

Split Britches  (Source: Christa Holka)

Split Britches, LaMama, New York City
Legendary queer-lesbian-feminist performance duo Split Britches was part of the diverse bill of Artist Residents for the 2020-21 season at LaMama. Founded by Peggy Shaw and Lois Weaver in 1980, New York City (with Deb Margolin) Split Britches epitomizes the best of the Downtown DIY theater scene (along with lesbian-centric WOW Café).

For 40 years, Shaw and Weaver have created solo pieces, plays, and workshops in addition to numerous prestigious grants and awards. "Belle Reprieve," their experimental reimagining of "A Streetcar Named Desire," was a butch-femme deconstruction of the American classic. "Last Gasp," originally slated for a LaMama world premiere and a UK premiere at the Barbican's Pit in June, had to be postponed. In the meantime, catch them online.

John Fisher, Theater Rhinoceros, San Francisco
The longest-running queer theatre in the nation is perhaps surprisingly in San Francisco. Established in 1977, Theater Rhinoceros dedicates itself to developing and producing performances that explore all aspects of the LGBTQ community through original works and classics. Multiple award-winning executive director John Fisher has been at the helm of the GLAAD-approved company since 2003 and earned his doctorate in Dramatic Art from UC Berkeley, where he taught, as well as at the Yale School of Drama. He's also moved with the times, debuting his latest work, "St. John Fisher," in a free live-streamed production via Zoom.

Patricia Ione Lloyd  

Patricia Ione Lloyd, Brooklyn, New York
A holder of numerous fellowships for her plays and musicals including Sundance, Dramatist Guild, New York Theater Workshop, and Emerging Writers Group at the Public Theater, Lloyd also has held residencies in Mumbai and Tanzania. Her work has been developed and performed all over New York City embodying the belief that Black stories not only matter — they belong on our main stages.

Proudly incorporating LGBTQ themes into her work, such as the queer female protagonists of "Eve's Song," Lloyd continues the pioneering work of Lorraine Hansberry and Ntozake Shange. She's also currently lavishing her talents on TV in shows such as AMC's Hap and Leonard and as a producer on Lena Waithe's Twenties.

Becca Blackwell in "Hurricane Diane."  (Source: Joan Marcus)

Becca Blackwell, New York City
The New York City-based trans actor, performer and writer brings their rambunctious charm to everything they touch, whether that's their solo performance piece "They, Themself and Schmerm" or the role of Dionysus (if that god were a landscape gardener with a penchant for seducing suburban housewives) in Hurricane Diane. Becca Blackwell also collaborates with other theater practitioners to explore identity and corporeality.

Blackwell was a recipient of the Doris Duke Impact Artist Award, the Franklin Furnace Award and the Creative Capital Award. While our theater spaces are dark, you can see Blackwell onscreen in "High Maintenance," "Marriage Story," "Shameless," "Deadman's Barstool," and "Jack in the Box."

Paula Vogel  (Source: Laurie Sturdevant)

Paula Vogel, Wellfleet, Massachusetts
You might think that the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright could rest on her laurels. She's got plenty. "Indecent" won the 2017 Tony Award for Best Play, while "How I Learned to Drive," which premiered in 1997 Off-Broadway at The Vineyard Theatre and won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, was slated for a Broadway production this spring with Mary-Louise Parker and David Morse reprising their lead roles.

Vogel quickly pivoted when the production was canceled and racial unrest swept the country, instead, launching Bard at the Gate, a "startup play series" featuring works she's read and cultivated over the years that have yet to receive substantial professional productions.

"Can we get excited by the fact that it will take us time to process a new voice? That it will take us days, months, years to travel in our minds to process what we saw on a single evening at the theater? That's what I'm talking about when I say a play is ambitious," said Vogel in a recent interview. "To me, a play creates a disturbance in my heart and my mind. I'm talking about plays that train us. I'm talking about plays that change our sensibilities."

Vogel has been married to Anne Fausto-Sterling since 2004.

Merryn Johns is a writer and editor based in New York City. She is also a public speaker on ethical travel and a consultant on marketing to the LGBT community.

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