‘After Orlando’ gave a local voice to one of the worst single-night tragedies in LGBTQ history
On June 12, 2016, a man walked into Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, FL. He killed 49 people and wounded 53 others before shooting himself.
Since then, LGBTQ+ community across the United States struggled to respond to the tragedy.
Here in Richmond, the theatre community gathered to perform selections from After Orlando”at Richmond Triangle Players (RTP), pulling actors and directors from VCU and various theater companies in the city.
More background on how the event came to pass can be found here.
But last night in Richmond was the first night of a two show run of the production at RTP. It fell on the 6-month anniversary of the Pulse shooting. Tonight is the second run with all proceeds going to benefit Diversity Richmond.
Both evenings consist of twenty short pieces, separated by an intermission, which focus on various aspects of the tragedy.
The beauty of the production had nothing to do with acting, directing, lighting or sound design. The wonderment of the evening was in the artists came together to give of themselves and make a statement; to take a stand and give ordinary citizens a place to come to express their grief and to feel solidarity with their community and with each other.
As an organizer and director for After Orlando, VCU professor Josh Chenard felt a sense of relief watching the performance on the first night. Theatre, he said after last night’s show, involves a writer, a director, performers, and an audience.
“Somehow we all are part of this storytelling scheme and are moved by it and react to it and share in it,” said Chenard. “At the end of the day, it’s a sharing, and I think that’s what I felt tonight.”
Heather Falks, who directed two of last night’s pieces and performed in one, said grappling with the ongoing stress from Pulse can be the hardest part of moving on – how LGBTQ folks continue to feel isolated and the reality of a second assault even on smaller scale.
“It can feel so isolating to grapple with how awful this is and how it continues to happen in our society,” she said. “As an artist, knowing that this is my way of being an activist, connecting with other artists, shedding light on the subject, and bringing attention to those who lost their lives seems like the most important way to honor them.”
The 20 pieces touch every aspect of the shootings, literally or metaphorically. Subjects range from the ease of obtaining weapons, the sickness the gay community felt after the shooting, and the ability to love one another after the world has changed.
One of the pieces, Everybody Gets a Stick by Deborah Laufer, deals with the absurd consequences of lenient gun rights.
In the play, a kindergarten mother asserts her child’s right to have a stick with a nail in it on the playground while a teacher protests, fearing for the safety of the students. To the horror of both parent and teacher, the principal establishes a policy giving every student- and the teacher- a stick with a nail in it, saying that they can all group up and beat the first child to use their stick.
They’re all good kids, says the principal, so you can trust them, right?
Some works in After Orlando discuss the cultural fallout of the tragedy.
At the Store With My Daughter by Rohina Malik is about a Muslim woman and her daughter who are accosted at a grocery store. Neil LaBute’s Fun Fact is about how tragedies are simplified by the 24-hour news cycle—and how quickly they’re forgotten.
Some of the plays directly address how members of the LGBTQ+ community responded to the Pulse shooting.
Claim by Ken Urban focused on the dilemma of one gay man who, after hearing about the father of a Pulse victim who refused to claim his son’s body out of shame for his sexuality. He calls his own mother and asks whether she would “claim” him.
As difficult as these subjects are, they were all presented with love, sympathy, and empathy.
When the directors were selecting pieces to work on, Kikau Alvaro, who teaches Musical Theatre and Movement at VCU, took a great deal of care selecting pieces that resonated with him.
“I chose two that had to deal with the aftermath,” said Alvaro. “Some of them dealt with all sorts of different things- the news, or the gun issue, and for me, the thing that was interesting was how someone cleaned up. However morbid this is, someone had to go in there and clean up, after.”
That play he directed in the first act is called The Human Traces, written by Oliver Mayer. It, as a soliloquy, follows a pair of emergency response personnel as they remove the bodies from Pulse. The speaker, however, can’t help but focus on the objects which the victims left behind, the relics that showed the their plans for after.
And then the first cell phone rings out from the pocket of a corpse.
Between readings, rehearsals, and the technical run-through the night before the premiere, Alvaro has seen and worked with the plays multiple times… “But there was something tonight that, throughout, I felt little moments of the past,” he said. “In particular, the piece that has them reading the names really got me. We’ve memorialized this by doing, by being here, by hearing names. There’s something about that that connected immediately, in a visceral reaction, to me.”
Philip Crosby, executive director of Richmond Triangle Players, is now in his fifties, and has had time to see tragedy unfold for the LGBTQ+ community time and again. Repeatedly, he’s seen that pain ignored by mainstream culture and, in his own words, has become jaded.
Yet, he found himself profoundly affected by that same performance.
“One of the pieces that hit me hardest was the one where they were dancing and reading the names and relating it to the reading of the names that happened with the [AIDS] quilt in the 80s,” said Crosby, nothing that was the era he grew up in. “[HIV/AIDS] was the devastation and the loss that I experienced in my 20s. And so it put me in a place where I could really re-experience what that loss is like for the first time.”
This led Crosby to see more similarities between Pulse and previous tragedies.
“What’s interesting, and I hadn’t realized this until tonight, is how [similar] it is to thirty years ago,” said Crosby. “How the LGBT community, the queer community, has taken it up and said, ‘this can’t happen again.’ How so many politicians have sort of said, ‘well, you know, it’s a tragedy, but we can’t do anything about the guns, and we’re not sure you queer people are leading good lives… It’s almost like a replay of thirty years ago.”
Crosby sees at least one upside amidst the fallout from the Pulse shooting: “You see an outpouring of support from our straight allies that you didn’t see thirty years ago.”
After Orlando as produced by Richmond Triangle Players speaks to the diversity and passion of the Richmond community. The performance is both a rallying cry and a memorial, and provides a means for the audience to remember, grieve, and look to the future.
Tonight offers a second and last chance to catch the production, 8 PM at RTP - tickets are $10.
This piece was a split write up from both GayRVA Theatre Critic Freddy Kaufman and contributor Joseph Vandersyde
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