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A discussion on intergenerational issues in the queer theatre scene replaced a reading of playwright Sky Gilbert's work after he published a controversial poem
At least 100 people gathered at Buddies in Bad Times on November 19, but not for a performance – at least not in the traditional sense.
Over the weekend, the theatre replaced a scheduled reading of Sky Gilbert’s 1986 play Drag Queens In Outer Space with a community discussion focused on intergenerational issues and allyship.
Buddies artistic director Evalyn Parry made the decision to cancel the reading after Gilbert, a queer playwright and former Buddies artistic director, published a poem entitled I’m Afraid Of ‘Woke People’ on his own website on November 10. It was addressed to transgender artist and author Vivek Shraya in response to her recently published book I’m Afraid Of Men.
“It’s a piece that targets and blames a trans woman of colour for Sky’s sense of persecution,” said Parry at the start of the discussion. “It’s a piece that has caused many of the most vulnerable in our community to feel harmed and it gives ammunition to those who seek to harm them.”
Gilbert’s play had been selected as part of a series of one-night, pop-up performances and readings to mark the theatre’s 40th anniversary.
“I felt this play would be an interesting one through which we could look at how things have changed in queer culture in the 32 years since it was written,” Parry explained. Playwright Nick Green was invited to direct the reading and the cast was made up of queer racialized actors. “Many of the artists from the planned event are here tonight and have supported my decision to change the programming,” Parry added.
Instead, the theatre held a Long Table – an experimental public forum developed by lesbian performance artist Lois Weaver – to discuss intergenerational issues and allyship within the queer community.
According to Parry, Buddies engaged Gilbert in an unsuccessful dialogue before cancelling the reading altogether. Gilbert was not in attendance. In a statement to NOW, he said he feels humiliated, isolated and unsupported in the wake of the cancelled reading.
“What Evalyn has done is not censorship it is something far, far worse,” Gilbert wrote in an email, adding that Buddies has a reputation for never shying away from controversial or radical viewpoints. “Queer culture events were part of our artistic programming, and unlike the present artistic director, we stood behind the work being presented at the theatre, and the artists who presented it. This is the kind of theatre that Buddies used to be.”
Reached via email, Shraya said she has “no comment at this time.”
Inside the cabaret space at Buddies, the Long Table was more of a large square table with space for 10 chairs around it. At the centre of the table were two mics (the conversation was being livestreamed on Facebook), and pens and paper were scattered about so that participants could write notes. There was no spotlight highlighting the table, but audience seating on three sides of the table made the atmosphere feel intimate.
Speaking to the attendees, Parry, who never sat at the table, explained that Buddies has been trying to be a more inclusive place for trans and non-binary folks, people of colour as well as Indigenous and two-spirited folks. “As most institutions do, we still have a lot of work to do in this area.”
She said proceeding with the reading would sabotage that work and send a signal to those communities they were not welcome at Buddies.
Moderated by playwright and director Donna-Michelle St. Bernard, the Long Table’s goal was to make space for a conversation – or “provocation” – surrounding a question partially taken from a Shraya quote: “In these increasingly polarized times, how can we, as an intergenerational queer community ‘cherish all that makes us different and conquer all that makes us afraid?’”
Only nine individuals, including St. Bernard, could be seated at the 10 chairs around a table at any given time, and only those seated at the table were invited to speak. Participation started slowly, but at one point during the 75 minute conversation, all nine chairs were full.
Michelle da Silva
During the intermission, members of the public were invited to write down their thoughts on paper wrapping the Long Table. Fear was a common theme.
One of the dominating points throughout the conversation was recognizing white supremacy and white privilege. Some older folks, who have ties to Buddies since the early 90s, acknowledged that in the past, Buddies was mostly a space for white queers only.
“In the 90s, we believed we were the oppressed. We had no concept of racism,” one member of the public stated (the names of members of the public were not recorded to maintain the safe-space mandate of the Long Table). They were proud of how far Buddies had come and that the theatre took a stand against a perceived attack against a trans woman of colour.
Another person seated at the Long Table admitted that as a gay white man who survived sexual violence, he had a difficult time with the word “privilege.” Instead, after reading about the Black tax, he started thinking of levels of oppression as taxes.
“What are the taxes people are paying to come use a common space?” he asked. That statement elicited nods of understanding and agreement from audience members.
Another common thread throughout the dialogue was free speech.
“I’m Afraid Of ‘Woke People’ was written at a time when free speech is being attacked,” the participant said. “This isn’t just about shutting down other queers. It’s happening at all levels including within schools and government.”
The Long Table came to a powerful crescendo with the evening’s final speakers. One person brought up the Bruce McArthur case, noting police didn’t take the cases of community members who disappeared (and were later found murdered) seriously until a white victim vanished. They used the case as an example of how white supremacy and colonization guides every institution, so why would we expect the arts to be exempt?
The next speaker, a well-known two-spirit artist within the community defended Shraya. “I do not feel safe, but I’m going to speak when I see friends like Vivek get attacked.” This person spoke about the ways in which colonialism targets the “magic people,” including teachers, healers and artists. And so long as queer communities continue to operate within a colonialist framework, trans and non-binary people of colour will be oppressed.
There were audible sniffles during a statement made by a trans person at the table: “I live with the fear of being killed every day, and I do not know how to conquer that fear.”
The final speaker, a non-binary Latinx person, focused on the importance of creating connections, especially between generations. This, they posited, was essential to keeping each other alive.
“We experience so much violence. We shouldn’t be putting that on each other,” they said. “When I look at my elders, they’re people I want to learn from. When I look at youth, they’re people I want to learn from. I just want to live long enough to be an elder.”
Courage, accountability and safety were the dominant themes of what turned out to be an emotional night. St. Bernard reminded everyone in the room that this was the start of an ongoing conversation that Buddies and hopefully all arts communities need to continue having.