Welcome friends to the First Read festival, a wonderful week of readings and events hosted by The Syndicate. The Syndicate is a group comprised of New York and Chicago artists who are committed to the promotion of queer, transgender, and femme artists to perform their works in spaces of support and acceptance. From June 10-16, The Syndicate and their fierce co-producers Ellenor Riley-Condit, Hal Cosentino, and Denise Yvette Serna of Pop Magic Productions have created a fantastic line-up showcasing local queer artists and their new works at The Martin.
These pay-what-you-can readings offer a variety of lived experiences with the connective tissue of queer identity, relationships, and issues explored. If you sadly miss a reading or want a second opinion, consider this post as a touchstone. Check out our recap throughout this week as new reviews will be posted here daily. Let's kick off this kiki!
Written by Lucas Garcia
Directed by Airos Sung-En Medill
Starring Isaura Flores (Beatriz), Vic Wynter (Petra), Jazmin Corona (Tillie), Gregory Taylor Hill (Dominic), Phyllis Liu (Andrew), Sar Cohen (Guadi), Jose Nateras (Lupe), Alyssa Vera Ramos (Sun/Stage Directions), and Ashley Joy (Moon/Stage Directions)
As you enter The Martin, you’re greeted by warm lighting and even warmer personalities. You detect the vague smell of incense, letting you know this is a sacred space.
Playwright Lucas Garcia and director Airos Sung-En Medill lead everyone in a rhythmic patting of our hearts—connecting us to our breath. Garcia reads out an acknowledgment of the territory we're occupying, traditionally of the Ojibwe, Odawa, and Potawatomi. They also remind us today is the anniversary of the Pulse shooting, and how we must remember all the queer POCs whose lives have been taken. Now the reading can begin.
As the cast enters, they each present a stone offering to the potted cactus placed in the center of the performance space. Atop a square cloth, the cactus becomes surrounded by a mix of ritual objects. The Sun (Alyssa Vera Ramos) and Moon (Ashley Joy) herald in Garcia’s words with fluid movement. The calming, regal energy of Joy’s Moon compliments the playful, borderline mischievous spirit of Ramos’ Sun. They don’t speak. They don’t have to. The Sun sends down her hot rays with a shake of her tambourine and we're brought to the West Mesa of Albuquerque, NM.
Open on Beatriz (Isaura Flores) and her partner, Petra (Vic Wynter), as they clean the house left behind by Beatriz’s recently deceased aunt. Flores brings an undeniable charm and bright energy to Beatriz—which makes it hurt even more when she must confront the pain of her aunt’s loss, and the potential loss of not fully knowing her while alive.
But pain is coupled with joy, and much of the humor comes from the hilariously relatable tensions between ex-partners. Garcia explores the death and rebirth of relationships—from romantic to platonic and back again—and how polyamory can complicate and compliment these rebirths.
Family by blood and choice converge when Beatriz’s lovers and friends meet her cousins, Lupe and Guadi (Jose Nateras, Sar Cohen). Together they hold a celebration of Aunt Tillie’s life, which ends up carving out a queer-affirming space where it is safe to talk about coming out and family acceptance/rejection. And as the sun, moon, stars, water, and cactus teach us, nature, our surroundings, and where we come from are all vital to healing.
*Content warning: This review contains spoilers. It also discusses topics of sexual assualt/rape.*
Ashana (A Native Play)
Written by June Thiele
Directed by Rinska Carrasco-Prestinary
Starring Frankie Pedersen (Ashana), Lauren Fisher (Trish), Caleb Wayne Fath (Gilly), Matthew Nerber (Chris) and Leigh Hendrix (Stage Directions)
In the words of Ashana, the story we're about to witness is, “real yet not real at all.” Playwright June Thiele creates a world where native tale becomes Ashana’s reality—a reality denied by everyone closest to her.
As a Native American, queer woman, Ashana (Frankie Pedersen) is led to believe she's not native nor gay enough. Yet she repeatedly proves otherwise, defining lesbian terminology for her painfully straight, white best friend Chris (Matthew Nerber) and spelling out the importance of her culture to long-term girlfriend, Trish (Lauren Fisher)—also white. Thiele showcases the humor in this labor by poking fun at the ignorance of Chris and Trish. Amusement is also found in the playful relationship of Ashana and Trish, where Pedersen and Fisher turn the freelance artist/straight-laced lawyer dynamic into comedy gold.
The second half of the play takes a darker turn as Thiele acutely depicts the way in which a traumatic experience can come together—piece by piece and then all at once—in the mind of the survivor. Through the sounds of a drum, the audience is given insight into Ashana’s visions of an "Alaska native creature", a half-human/half-fish monster. Though not staged for the reading, we can see the monster in Pedersen’s eyes as Ashana has the chilling realization she’s been raped.
But, of course, no one believes her. Not her friends. Not her girlfriend. Not even her protective brother, Gilly (Caleb Wayne Fath). They each cite the merman perpetrator as the source of their disbelief, but their excuses sound all too familiar. Through the framing of Ashana’s legend, Thiele amplifies the minimizing behaviors and blame that sexual assault survivors often face. We're implicitly asked to consider how we might respond, how we decide what is true or not.
prefer not to answer, or other
Written by Gavin D. Pak
Directed by JD Caudill
Starring Angelíca Grace (Florence), Sam Flores (Connor), Mia Park (Nina), Norman Garcy Yap (Arthur), Shane Novoa Rhoades (Mr. Sanderson/Connor’s Dad/Mr. Dobson) and Alexandra Alontaga (Stage Directions)
As the play’s college admissions counselor, Mr. Sanderson (Shane Novoa Rhoades), insists, essay readers hate universal truths. While anyone who has a tumultuous relationship with their biological family could relate to this play, playwright Gavin D. Pak doesn’t settle for universality. Instead, they highlight the incredibly specific intersecting identities of the main character Florence (Angelíca Grace)—a closeted, queer trans girl from a first generation, Korean immigrant family. During the college application process, Florence must decide if when to come out to her parents, who still think of her as their quiet, straight, cis-gendered son.
Florence’s fear of familial rejection stems far deeper than from an assumption her parents won’t understand; she recognizes that her transness reverts what is traditionally expected of her. This is something her white, trans boyfriend, Connor (Sam Flores), has a difficult time grasping. Even though Connor can relate to Florence on some level, Pak demonstrates how challenging it is to fully understand a cultural lived experience different from one’s own. But despite their misunderstandings, Connor and Florence have impeccable chemistry, and Grace and Flores are able to tackle Pak’s fast-paced witty banter with immense skill. I couldn’t stop smiling like an idiot whenever the two young lovers were in a scene together.
Pak also brings nuance into the relationship Florence has with her parents, Nina (Mia Park) and Arthur (Norman Garcy Yap). They're more than antagonists to Florence’s journey or simply tiger parent stereotypes. Even though Nina is a force to behold and Park brings the house down with her stone-cold rage and piercing sass, she's also desperately trying to connect with her child. Through a series of stunning visual vignettes, Pak layers Florence’s struggle with the sacrifices her parents made when they came to America—showing how being an immigrant and being closeted have more similarities than the characters are able to first perceive.
Every one of Pak’s characters has so much depth, it’s hard not to believe they're each living and breathing among us. Under the direction of JD Caudill, the cast delivered a polished performance that honored the complicated emotional dynamics of the play. prefer not to answer, or other shows the positive impact that specificity can have on a story like Florence’s.
Written by Theo Germaine
Directed by AJ Schwartz
Starring Jerome Riley (Nik), Elle Walker (Zuli), and Wil Whedbee (Victor/Ghost)
It’s a stormy night in a cramped Chicago apartment. An autumn chill seeps into the air. Through a flash of lightning, we see a mysterious figure. And in a second, they're gone as quickly as they appeared.
Playwright Theo Germaine masterfully sets the scene for a supernatural mystery and they do not disappoint. As Nik (Jerome Riley) and Zuli (Elle Walker) investigate the circumstances around the sudden death of their partner, Victor (Wil Whedbee), it seems as though they aren’t the only ones in the apartment.
Nik and Zuli desperately want to ensure Victor is remembered in a way that would honor who he was as a transman, and not how his conservative, televangelist parents saw him. In the process, they uncover more about themselves tackling topics ranging from mental illness, to non-monogamy, to the afterlife. Walker inhabits Zuli as a strong, protective force, grounding the sweet, nervous energy of Riley’s Nik. The two work well as a couple, but Victor’s absence in the relationship is felt.
An unspoken fourth character of the play is the apartment itself. Germaine constructs an environment that has a tangible impact on the mood and action of each scene. Because so much of the play depends on its staging and production elements, it was at times difficult to grasp the full extent of the supernatural through the constraints of the reading. Germaine also informed the audience the play is unfinished, so we were only privy to a taste of Act II and left with some unanswered questions. I’m eager to see where Germaine decides to go with this story and how Nik and Zuli’s journey together evolves.
Rachel Perzynski is a dramaturg, teaching artist, and curator focused on new play development and devised story-telling. She received her BFA in Dramaturgy/Criticism from The Theatre School at DePaul University. She currently is a script reader for several new play festivals and theater companies. She also teaches social justice theater within Chicago Public Schools.