Casting out Violence

In New York queer youth ask how art can combat violence.

To exist is to resist. We have heard this phrase uttered by activists representing marginalized communities, from Palestine to Indigenous communities in the United States. But what does existence and resistance mean for queer youth in the US, coming of age at a time in which public shootings are commonplace and the murders of LGBTQ folks often go unreported? What kind of resistance does a queer body taking up space on stage represent? The ten artists featured in this photo essay are using performance to address and answer these questions.

June 12, 2016, 49 people shot dead in an Orlando nightclub. The murders at the Pulse sent ripples throughout the queer community. In the days to follow, artists, activists and leaders across the country gathered to collectively mourn and create responses and memorials to those lost. In New York City, this included living memorials and street performances outside Stonewall Bar, vigils in the NYC Pride Parade and remembering the names of the dead through song, action and public art.

The New York queer community has a long history of using art to highlight injustice—from work to call for lifesaving drugs during the AIDS crisis, to creative responses to hate crime. Currently, queer youth are creating theatre and performance art to combat gun violence and other forms of oppression in their homes and communities. Through dance, poetry, text and multimedia; in theatres, basements, living rooms and coffeehouses, they demand visibility. While the immediate responses to the events in Orlando have passed, the artists featured in this photo essay know that events like this do not happen in a vacuum—our culture of heteronormativity and toxic masculinity continues to perpetuate violence and injustice.

We see our roles as theatrical storytellers and anthropologists to bring our research to public audiences while working in collaboration with communities to tell their own stories. For the cast of artists in this project, the personal is political—the art they make is a critical response to lives that are literally at stake as queer people, as brown and black people in the US today.

Brazilian theatre director and creator of Theatre of the Oppressed, Augusto Boal said, “Theatre is a form of knowledge; it should be and can be a means to transform society. Theatre can help us build our future rather than just waiting for it.” For the New York City based artists featured here, the future is now. Dinae Anderson, David Armanino, Maggie Borlando, Essence Brown, Cristin Gordon, Jesse James Keitel, Jesse Krebs, Vinny Eden Ortega, Ian Fields Stewart and Jackie Torres have taken their future into their own hands. Through their art they are finding community, hope and revolution.

 

Jackie Torres and Ian Fields Stewart are developing a poetry/dance piece called In Theory, a show written by Torres that uses social theory to better understand the way structural violence contributes to personal trauma. Stewart choreographs to Torres’ poetry during rehearsal for In Theory at Simple Studios in Manhattan. What exactly do we mean when we speak of using theatre as a tool for social activism? Are we talking about the transformation and healing elements that art can provide an individual or change on a societal scale, or both? “When I think about activism in theater, I think about the Theater of the Oppressed and the ways in which a spectator becomes a ‘spect-actor’ and there are resources sent out and there are opportunities provided that say, ‘go here,’ ‘do this,’ ‘stand with these people,’ I feel like the way I interpret activism in theater, in its revolutionary sense, is that you are literally leading the horses to water, so to speak....You are leading the audience to the next moment or the next movement, rather than just presenting them with options and thoughts that they can sit with” (Stewart). Photo courtesy Ashley Marinaccio
Jackie Torres and Ian Fields Stewart are developing a poetry/dance piece called In Theory, a show written by Torres that uses social theory to better understand the way structural violence contributes to personal trauma. Stewart choreographs to Torres’ poetry during rehearsal for In Theory at Simple Studios in Manhattan. What exactly do we mean when we speak of using theatre as a tool for social activism? Are we talking about the transformation and healing elements that art can provide an individual or change on a societal scale, or both? “When I think about activism in theater, I think about the Theater of the Oppressed and the ways in which a spectator becomes a ‘spect-actor’ and there are resources sent out and there are opportunities provided that say, ‘go here,’ ‘do this,’ ‘stand with these people,’ I feel like the way I interpret activism in theater, in its revolutionary sense, is that you are literally leading the horses to water, so to speak….You are leading the audience to the next moment or the next movement, rather than just presenting them with options and thoughts that they can sit with” (Stewart). Photo courtesy Ashley Marinaccio

 

“I’m really fascinated by the idea of structural violence… I’m really fascinated by this concept of intergenerational trauma and the fact that we know that the things [that] have happened to people before us affect us… this was something I was thinking about a lot when I recorded everything going on in my head and around me…. I think we fail to address the nature of what violence is. [Physical] violence is usually a manifestation of other types of violence” (Torres). Photo courtesy Ashley Marinaccio
“I’m really fascinated by the idea of structural violence… I’m really fascinated by this concept of intergenerational trauma and the fact that we know that the things [that] have happened to people before us affect us… this was something I was thinking about a lot when I recorded everything going on in my head and around me…. I think we fail to address the nature of what violence is. [Physical] violence is usually a manifestation of other types of violence” (Torres). Photo courtesy Ashley Marinaccio
Theatre artists Dinae Anderson and Jesse Krebs meet in Krebs’ Harlem apartment to plan the launch of their new theatre company Theatre Who. Theatre Who’s mission is to rebel against issues of censorship and type casting in New York City theatre. Anderson says, “The first step in talking about any form of oppression, including violence, is making it clear that it is a systematic entity causing all of this. You want to control guns but yet, that is not necessarily the whole issue… This summer in New York City, there have been regular raids in the NYCHA [NYC Housing Authority] projects. Nobody is talking about that. Nobody is talking about how disabled people and black and brown people are literally having their homes and families invaded by SWAT teams. That’s a violent act in and of itself. And that’s state sanctioned. That’s not violence from gangs or ISIS… it’s from people who are supposed to be protecting us.” Krebs adds, “A lot of times when making ‘political theatre’ you hear the phrase ‘we don’t want to alienate the audience.’ While I understand the concept of not wanting to alienate the audience I certainly want to implicate the audience. I certainly want to make sure we make the statement that this is not some ‘far off problem’, this is you, this is us.” Photo courtesy Ashley Marinaccio
Theatre artists Dinae Anderson and Jesse Krebs meet in Krebs’ Harlem apartment to plan the launch of their new theatre company Theatre Who. Theatre Who’s mission is to rebel against issues of censorship and type casting in New York City theatre. Anderson says, “The first step in talking about any form of oppression, including violence, is making it clear that it is a systematic entity causing all of this. You want to control guns but yet, that is not necessarily the whole issue… This summer in New York City, there have been regular raids in the NYCHA [NYC Housing Authority] projects. Nobody is talking about that. Nobody is talking about how disabled people and black and brown people are literally having their homes and families invaded by SWAT teams. That’s a violent act in and of itself. And that’s state sanctioned. That’s not violence from gangs or ISIS… it’s from people who are supposed to be protecting us.” Krebs adds, “A lot of times when making ‘political theatre’ you hear the phrase ‘we don’t want to alienate the audience.’ While I understand the concept of not wanting to alienate the audience I certainly want to implicate the audience. I certainly want to make sure we make the statement that this is not some ‘far off problem’, this is you, this is us.” Photo courtesy Ashley Marinaccio
Anderson and Krebs take notes for their first show, which will be a contemporary adaptation of fairy tales. “LGBTQIA people are being shot and killed daily and you won’t hear about it… a gay man was just killed yesterday in the Bronx and you are not hearing about that because you can’t implicate ISIS. They only grieve deaths when they can be used for political advantage. Terror is not elsewhere. Terror is something we’ve been living with every day, every year and throughout every century” (Krebs).Photo courtesy Ashley Marinaccio
Anderson and Krebs take notes for their first show, which will be a contemporary adaptation of fairy tales. “LGBTQIA people are being shot and killed daily and you won’t hear about it… a gay man was just killed yesterday in the Bronx and you are not hearing about that because you can’t implicate ISIS. They only grieve deaths when they can be used for political advantage. Terror is not elsewhere. Terror is something we’ve been living with every day, every year and throughout every century” (Krebs).Photo courtesy Ashley Marinaccio

 

Stewart rehearses choreography for the upcoming performance of In Theory. “I think that it gets very complicated when we talk about activism and theatre because to place queer and gendered folks into a theatrical space, claim them as authentically themselves, and give them space and time to exist is activism in and of itself, but is that enough? There is activism in placing brown and black bodies on stage and allowing those brown and black bodies to speak, act and exist within their own autonomy but I think that to cause revolution, which is what I wrap a lot of my activism up in, there has to be some second steps and I don’t think we, in the current incarnation of this piece, have quite unpacked what that second step and call to action will be” (Stewart). Photo courtesy Ashley Marinaccio
Stewart rehearses choreography for the upcoming performance of In Theory. “I think that it gets very complicated when we talk about activism and theatre because to place queer and gendered folks into a theatrical space, claim them as authentically themselves, and give them space and time to exist is activism in and of itself, but is that enough? There is activism in placing brown and black bodies on stage and allowing those brown and black bodies to speak, act and exist within their own autonomy but I think that to cause revolution, which is what I wrap a lot of my activism up in, there has to be some second steps and I don’t think we, in the current incarnation of this piece, have quite unpacked what that second step and call to action will be” (Stewart). Photo courtesy Ashley Marinaccio

 

Director/playwright Vinny Eden Ortega in rehearsals for rewrites of his play, Hopeless, based on his experiences growing up and working with Floridian inner-city youth in Tampa. For Ortega, balancing politics and art is a delicate tightrope walk: “All art is political, but anything that is overtly political or has message people always say, ‘oh, is that your thing?,’ ‘do you do political work?”… I make theatre, I always have something to say, I always have a message, I always want to tell the truth.” Photo courtesy Ashley Marinaccio
Director/playwright Vinny Eden Ortega in rehearsals for rewrites of his play, Hopeless, based on his experiences growing up and working with Floridian inner-city youth in Tampa. For Ortega, balancing politics and art is a delicate tightrope walk: “All art is political, but anything that is overtly political or has message people always say, ‘oh, is that your thing?,’ ‘do you do political work?”… I make theatre, I always have something to say, I always have a message, I always want to tell the truth.” Photo courtesy Ashley Marinaccio

 

Essence Brown rehearses a scene from Hopeless at Pace University. In this scene, Brown’s character says, “I want to live to see the day that little brown boys and girls can walk freely. When Black mothers will not have to kiss their babies goodbye every morning like it is the last time, because they know very well that it might be. I want live to be a mother. If I go out there how many times will I have to say that “I can’t breathe”? Eric said it eleven times. How many times will I have ask what I’m being charged for before I’m Sandra, dead in a jail cell? There are so many things I want to see. I’ve heard there are beautiful things out there, I haven’t seen them yet, but I want to.” Photo courtesy Ashley Marinaccio
Essence Brown rehearses a scene from Hopeless at Pace University. In this scene, Brown’s character says, “I want to live to see the day that little brown boys and girls can walk freely. When Black mothers will not have to kiss their babies goodbye every morning like it is the last time, because they know very well that it might be. I want live to be a mother. If I go out there how many times will I have to say that “I can’t breathe”? Eric said it eleven times. How many times will I have ask what I’m being charged for before I’m Sandra, dead in a jail cell? There are so many things I want to see. I’ve heard there are beautiful things out there, I haven’t seen them yet, but I want to.” Photo courtesy Ashley Marinaccio

 

Jesse Keitel rehearses a scene from David Armanino’s new short film Like Glass, which follows Zion, a gender-fluid person whose true self-identity awakens in New York’s avant-garde drag scene. Like Glass is a psycho-fantastical exploration of how gender constructs affect our everyday lives and relationships, and a celebration of the LGBTQ community’s history of overcoming adversity and violence. “I think it’s hard for us to talk about violence within our own community. When you are part of a community that’s already [on the margins of our society], to also acknowledge that there is violence and discrimination between the people in this subset is almost too much to handle” (Armanino). Photo courtesy Ashley Marinaccio
Jesse Keitel rehearses a scene from David Armanino’s new short film Like Glass, which follows Zion, a gender-fluid person whose true self-identity awakens in New York’s avant-garde drag scene. Like Glass is a psycho-fantastical exploration of how gender constructs affect our everyday lives and relationships, and a celebration of the LGBTQ community’s history of overcoming adversity and violence. “I think it’s hard for us to talk about violence within our own community. When you are part of a community that’s already [on the margins of our society], to also acknowledge that there is violence and discrimination between the people in this subset is almost too much to handle” (Armanino). Photo courtesy Ashley Marinaccio 
Keitel and Armanino rehearse one of the film’s most intimate scenes in the bathroom of Keitel’s apartment. “When did you become such a heteronormative asshole anyway? No matter what you pretend to be out there for your boss and your office buds when we are home, when we fuck, you are still just a faggot” (dialogue from Like Glass). Photo courtesy Ashley Marinaccio
Keitel and Armanino rehearse one of the film’s most intimate scenes in the bathroom of Keitel’s apartment. “When did you become such a heteronormative asshole anyway? No matter what you pretend to be out there for your boss and your office buds when we are home, when we fuck, you are still just a faggot” (dialogue from Like Glass). Photo courtesy Ashley Marinaccio

 

Keitel and Maggie Borlando rehearse a scene from Like Glass in Keitel’s bedroom. “Theatre, art and media can expose the fact that there is so much internalized hatred and internalized fear towards the LGBT community and within the LGBT community. It helps in the healing process” (Keitel). Photo by Ashley Marinaccio
Keitel and Maggie Borlando rehearse a scene from Like Glass in Keitel’s bedroom. “Theatre, art and media can expose the fact that there is so much internalized hatred and internalized fear towards the LGBT community and within the LGBT community. It helps in the healing process” (Keitel). Photo by Ashley Marinaccio

 

Armanino focuses on how to approach a critical scene. “When you are talking about violence, the responsibility for storytellers is to present it in a way that is as shocking and awful as it should be, but again within the safe context where someone can still get a lesson out of it, instead of being so traumatized where they can’t deal with it, which is what I feel like when I see the news—it’s almost too much and you can’t take away as much from it as if you could by watching a film or seeing theatre” (Armanino). Photo courtesy Ashley Marinaccio
Armanino focuses on how to approach a critical scene. “When you are talking about violence, the responsibility for storytellers is to present it in a way that is as shocking and awful as it should be, but again within the safe context where someone can still get a lesson out of it, instead of being so traumatized where they can’t deal with it, which is what I feel like when I see the news—it’s almost too much and you can’t take away as much from it as if you could by watching a film or seeing theatre” (Armanino). Photo courtesy Ashley Marinaccio

 

Armanino focuses on how to approach a critical scene. “When you are talking about violence, the responsibility for storytellers is to present it in a way that is as shocking and awful as it should be, but again within the safe context where someone can still get a lesson out of it, instead of being so traumatized where they can’t deal with it, which is what I feel like when I see the news—it’s almost too much and you can’t take away as much from it as if you could by watching a film or seeing theatre” (Armanino). Photo courtesy Ashley Marinaccio
Armanino focuses on how to approach a critical scene. “When you are talking about violence, the responsibility for storytellers is to present it in a way that is as shocking and awful as it should be, but again within the safe context where someone can still get a lesson out of it, instead of being so traumatized where they can’t deal with it, which is what I feel like when I see the news—it’s almost too much and you can’t take away as much from it as if you could by watching a film or seeing theatre” (Armanino). Photo courtesy Ashley Marinaccio

Special thanks to Dinae Anderson, David Armanino, Maggie Borlando, Essence Brown, Jesse James Keitel, Jesse Krebs, Vinny Eden Ortega, Ian Fields Stewart and Jackie Torres.

For more information on Theatre Who visit:  http://theatrewho.wixsite.com/theatrewho

For more information on Vinny Eden Ortega’s work and Hopeless visit:  www.thedaretactic.org

For more information on Like Glass and David Armanino’s work visit: www.davidarmanino.com and www.likeglassfilm.com

Ashley Marinaccio is a storyteller, theater artist and photographer. Her photography has appeared in numerous publications and received awards including the AAA 2015 Photo of the Year Award and a 2012 IPPY Award. Currently, she is a PhD student in theater, CUNY Graduate Center.

Matthew Champagne is a theater director and public historian. Currently, he is the associate artistic director for the Eagle Project—a New York City-based theater company exploring the American identity through Native American heritage

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