She Like Girls
The 10th anniversary of the death of Sakia Gunn, a 15-year-old victim of a hate crime, might have gone largely unobserved this year if it weren’t for a vigorous, emerging voice raised in perpetuating her memory.
A former resident of Newark, playwright Chisa Hutchinson was so moved and angered by the tragedy of the teenager in her home city that she wrote She Like Girls, a taut 90-minute work about the corrosive results of intolerance. The play received its first New Jersey reading, appropriately, in Newark, where NJPAC provided the space and the opportunity for the community to gather, converse and embrace in remembrance.
On May 11, 2003, Sakia, a sophomore at West Side High School and a lesbian, was stabbed to death at the intersection of Broad and Market streets when she rejected the advances of her assailant. The outrage expressed by LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) leaders and throughout the city led to the creation of the Newark Pride Alliance.
The free reading, directed by Rodney Gilbert, took place in NJPAC’s Chase Room, which was filled to capacity with 250 visitors, including members of the Gunn family. Floor-to-ceiling curtains were drawn open to reveal a glittering skyline vista behind the actors – an urban tapestry that not only served as a rightful backdrop for the players, but looked down on the sidewalk where Sakia died in her cousin’s arms.
Hutchinson (at right), a former member of NJPAC’s Development Department, estimates she’s spent about six years “shopping around” She Like Girls. After passing through the Lark Play Development Center, the nine-character work was produced notably at off-Broadway’s Ohio Theatre in 2009, when The New York Times called it “a love story at heart” and praised Hutchinson’s “sharp ear for dialogue.” Time Out New York, among other publications, ranked the young writer as a blazing talent among African-American dramatists.
“One gay day, homophobia will be a dead thing,” predicts Mr. Keys, the sympathetic high school English teacher of She Like Girls. Until then, “we must endure.” Burdened by self-doubt and the threat of alienation by family and friends, Kia Clark (portrayed by Naja Johnson, a Drew University student and alum of NJPAC’s Arts Education programs) is attracted – awkwardly and tentatively – to brash, outgoing classmate Marisol Feliciano (Analisa Velez). Kia’s struggle as she journeys to self-awareness is framed by a cast of venomous high-schoolers, adults in denial and a closeted friend. Even feminist and lesbian poet Adrienne Rich – a former English professor at Rutgers’ Douglass College – makes a beyond-the-grave appearance in a fantasy sequence. (Homage is paid to a segment of her Twenty-One Love Poems: “I dreamed you were a poem,/I say, a poem I wanted to show someone …/and I laugh and fall dreaming again/of the desire to show you to everyone I love …”)
Darnell Moore, who was appointed the first chairman of Newark’s LGBT Concerns Advisory Commission by Mayor Cory Booker, moderated a post-performance Q&A with Hutchinson and Gilbert. The playwright acknowledged the influence of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, in which the character of Joe Pitt is a repressed gay Mormon. She also said when she learned of Gunn’s death, “I was so angry about it that I didn’t know what to do except write this play.”
When Gunn’s sister rose from her seat in a show of support for the reading, Hutchinson struggled to describe her emotions through tears. “To honor (Sakia’s) life and her legacy was so important,” she said.
It was the only time her voice cracked.
Oct. 17, 2013