Arts & Culture

Festival shines spotlight on black queer theater

‘The Black Lavender Experience’ showcases dramatic works, raises conversation about cultural issues

Contributing Writer
Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The sixth-annual run of “The Black Lavender Experience,” a celebration of black queer performing arts, occurred last week. The festival is the brainchild of Elmo Terry-Morgan ’74, associate professor of Africana studies and theater arts and performance studies, and a group of students in his course, AFRI 0990: “Black Lavender,” which focuses on the emergence of black queer theater.

Featuring works of students and visiting artists, the festival held events at Brown’s Rites and Reason Theater in Churchill House, the George Houston Bass Performing Arts Space and the Cable Car Cinema.

The festival initially served as a creative space for black playwrights to showcase their art, but the project has now evolved into a forum for both new and well-known artists to engage with wider issues surrounding black queer arts and culture.

This year’s “Black Lavender Experience” provided insight into the history and hardships faced by black queer individuals. The festival presented dramatic works centered around black queer characters — Shirlene Holmes’ “A Lady and a Woman,” for example, which explores the difficulties facing two female African-American lovers in the late 19th century, or Nicholas Donias’ ’12 “Camp Sanctuary,” which tells the story of an adolescent Chicano man sent to a “de-gaying” camp in Mexico.

The pieces made people aware of a history that is not usually talked about, said Dakotah Blue Rice ’16, who attended several festival events.

“It’s not something you learn in high school history class, it’s not something you learn most of the time at Brown if you don’t take specific classes,” he said.

Rice said “The Black Lavender Experience” is unique in how it raises awareness of the black queer community and its art. He added that the Queer Alliance has discussion-oriented groups such as Other Brothers and The Next Thing that cover similar issues, but the festival has greater visibility.

Rice added that “The Black Lavender Experience” “really brings some attention to being a black queer person — what that identity entails to the larger community at Brown.”

Another festival event was a discussion about human rights and anti-LGBTQ legislation in Uganda featuring a Skype conversation with Ugandan playwrights Charles Muleka PhD’12 and George Seremba, as well as writer, musician and artist-in-residence Greg Tate.

Tara Cavanaugh, Africana studies video producer, has been filming the festival since its first iteration. She said this year’s roundtable discussion resonated with her and she sympathized with the closeted Ugandans who are in a witness protection program for safety.

“That broke my heart,” she said. “That broke my heart when I realized how lucky I am to be able to be out.”

“The Black Lavender Experience” also raised questions about the meaning of safety within an environment and a community for queer and black people. “If you don’t feel like you can be yourself, that means that you’re not safe,” said Helen Lee GS, administrative assistant for the festival. “Finding the place where you can be yourself and be expressive” was a theme emphasized during the festival, she said, adding that “sometimes that’s a really complicated place too.”

Identification in relation to community, culture, religion and family was also an underlying theme of all the events.

“I think that identity, really, is shaped in large part by context,” Lee said. “I think people change identifications throughout their lives as well.”

Lee added that there is a definite trend toward non-identification as well. People associated with the black queer community are increasingly spreading the message, “Actually, just don’t label me. I’m not gay, I’m not straight, I just am and I’m me.”

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