Published on March 25th, 2016 | by Reporters Desk0
Evolve Creates Change through the Power of Theater
Jackson Alexander Kelly as Daniel in the stage production of Choosing Us. Photo by Francis Gacad Theatre & Dance Photography, Courtesy of Evolve Theatre
By Melina Paris, Contributing Writer
Evolve Theatre Co. is on a mission to create positive social change. Its production, Choosing Us, is a testament to that undertaking.
The production took place at the Studio Theatre of the Long Beach Playhouse. Choosing Us was a response to Leelah Alcorn’s suicide. Leelah was only 17 years old when she died on Dec. 28, 2014. The transgender girl’s suicide attracted international attention.
Leelah, who was assigned to the male gender at birth, had asked her parents for permission to undergo transition treatment but they refused. Instead, her parents forced her to take antidepressant medications and sent her conversion therapists. They withdrew her from school and removed access to social networks.
After years of unhappiness, Leelah took action. She posted a suicide note to her Tumblr blog, writing about societal standards affecting transgender people and expressing the hope that her death would create a dialogue about discrimination, abuse and lack of support for transgender people.
On Dec. 28, 2014, Leelah ended her life by getting in traffic on Interstate 71 in Lebanon, Ohio, where a semi-trailer hit her. She died at the scene.
Ultimately, Leelah’s voice was heard. By Dec. 31, her suicide note was republished in Tumblr 200,000 times.
A petition calling for “Leelah’s Law,” a ban on conversion therapy in the Unites States, was created by the Transgender Human Rights Institute to raise awareness on the psychologically harmful effects of such practices. With 330,009 signatures it started a series of events eventually leading to President Barack Obama. In April 2015, the White House gave an official response to the petition stating, “We share your concern about its potentially devastating effects.”
Cincinnati and Washington, D.C. became the first two cities to outright ban the practice of conversion. California banned the practice in 2012. In 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear two cases challenging the legalities of the ban and the law took effect.
But work still needs to be done. According to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, a study released in 2012 by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force states, transgender people are twice as likely to become homeless or turn to street-based economies, they are 85 percent more likely to become incarcerated, and twice as likely to become infected with HIV.
According to the Human Rights Campaign, 21 transgender women were murdered in the United States in 2015, more than any other year on record. In fact, on March 23, news outlets reported the murder of Kourtney Yochum in Los Angeles. It was the first transgender murder in 2016.
Leelah’s death struck a chord with director Ryan Weible. He followed Leelah’s directive that her death mean something. Weible, who used to teach high school, found out that one of his former students had committed suicide a couple years after graduating.
Leelah’s death occurred at the same time that Weible struggled with the suicide of his former student. Leelah’s suicide was a result of her struggle with gender identity, trying to fit in and trying be accepted by her family. He believes his former student also struggled with those issues.
“It made it so clear to me in that moment that this was the first piece we needed to take on as a theater company,” Weible said. “Leelah’s last few words in her suicide note was, ‘fix society… please.’ Something about that was a major call to action for me.”
Weible said that he wants to use the privilege he has as a straight white, cisgender man to open opportunities for underrepresented communities. He wants to give these communities an outlet where their voices can be heard.
One way he is doing this is by displaying series of watercolor and ink drawings at the theater that Los Angeles queer artist, K. Ryan Henisey, created. Henisey painted a numbered series of each transgender woman who was murdered in 2015 titled, #sayhername. It’s the first thing people see when they come into the lobby.
Evolve put out a commission to find transgender writers to tell the story of what is happening in the transgender community. Two writers were found: Rain Valdez and Lino Martinez.
Valdez wanted to pursue something lighter. Martinez wanted to be truthful, gritty, darker and heavier. So, a third playwright, Vanessa Espino, was brought in to help make the disparate stories come together in a cohesive way. Espino is the one playwright who is not transgender. They did not expect to have two transgender writers perform as lead actors. Weible said having the writers play the characters that they had written, based loosely on their own life experiences, makes this production especially meaningful and impactful.
Choosing Us has two story lines: one told from the perspective of a teenage boy coming to grips with his transgender identity, while the other is from the perspective of a successful artist and photographer who denies her transgender identity.
Valdez said Mia had been living “stealth” for a several years as a successful artist and photographer. Stealth is a term used in the transgender community to describe when someone disassociates from being transgender and just wants to live a normal cisgender identity, or the gender they were born into, Valdez explained.
“As a co-writer I basically put a lot of my experiences into this character,” Valdez said. “I didn’t know I’d be playing her but I thought, if I was going to write something, I was going to write from my experiences and my truth.”
At one point in the play, Valdez’s character, Mia, realizes she has done a disservice to her community by denying her transgender identity. In a moment of epiphany, she scraps her originally planned exhibit of black-and-white architecture photographs. Instead, she interviews and photographs subjects from her community as a way to serve them better. One of the most impactful scenes in the play involves Mia’s interview with the siblings of a transgender person who was murdered.
“It’s one of the interviews that gets very deep into the tragedies that happen in our community,” Valdez said. “Even though it’s timely, with what is happening in the world, it’s still a play that we really haven’t quite seen yet.”
Weible hopes that the play will be effective. Weible is especially sensitive to issues impacting transgender women of color, in addition to the suicide rates that impact the community as a whole. But he tried to balance these issues with some levity.
“If you sort of immediately beat them over the head with heavy tragic stuff you almost rob them,” Weible said. “It doesn’t start that way, it’s mostly infused with the opposite and I think because of that, when those intense moments do come, they hit in a significant way.”
When the Long Beach Playhouse offered Evolve Theatre a spot in the Long Beach Playhouse’s annual collaborative season, Managing Director Kenny Allen jumped at it.
Evolve has been talking with Housing Long Beach and Latino’s In Action to find out if there can be a potential collaboration project with them. It wants to respond to community needs in all sorts of issues throughout Long Beach.
It’s been a labor of love for the people who put together this play. While the writers and designers were paid for their work, Weible, the producers and the publicist are not taking fees for their work. The biggest thing Weible hopes to convey is how important it is for this kind of theater to be supported.
“It’s incredibly important work that has to be supported or else it will cease to exist,” Weible said. “So I guess my call to action is to come. Entertainment is not the purpose of this work. The purpose is for you to have an experience that makes you more understanding and empathetic and kind to one another. There is so much hate in the world and not to get political [but] it’s time for us to let the pendulum start to swing back the other way and start to find things that we have in common.”