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New authors take on hard-hitting subjects at Playwrights Festival
by Sean Margaret Wagner

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With this year's crop of student one-acts, Pegasus Theatre Chicago is tackling homophobia, gentrification and other urban ordinariness that carries a political charge for a trio of female authors.

The 32nd Young Playwrights Festival features pieces like Luna MacWilliams' Good Strong Coffee, and Alexis Gaw's The Green Light, as these young authors explore what it's like to be queer and underrepresented today.

The festival is the first foray into playwriting for both Alexis Gaw, a Lane Tech College Prep student, and Luna MacWilliams, a Wesleyan University student ( formerly with Whitney M. Young Magnet High School ). "A Green Light was the first one-act I'd ever completed," said Gaw. "Lane Tech students are always encouraged to submit their plays from this unit to the festival. My drama teacher and a few friends of mine convinced me to do it, not that I needed much convincing." Good Strong Coffee was also a first for MacWilliams. "I've acted and been extremely involved in theatre my whole life," MacWiliams said, "but I've never tried my hand at playwriting."

The Green Light explores the latent homophobia that emerges when Patrick comes out of the closet to his closest friend, and Good Strong Coffee follows brother and sister Ernesto and Violeta as they keep their family's struggling coffee shop open while pursuing their own loves.

Gaw took inspiration from Patricia Hysmith's novel The Price of Salt, a lesbian romance notable for its rare happy ending in a genre often marred by punishment or tragedy for openly gay characters. "Casual bigotry is a lot more prevalent these days than people are willing to admit, and in some ways, particularly in urban environments, it's more pervasive than the overt kind of hatred," said Gaw. "I just wanted my main character to have a happy ending. It's such a big ask for LGBT media sometimes, although it is becoming less so."

For Good Strong Coffee, MacWilliams focused her story on a young, queer biracial woman because of how often they go unrepresented onstage. "I want to tell stories about real people. And to me, real people are queer. Not always, but they can be. It's that simple," MacWilliams said. "I wanted to tell a story about myself and my parents, my grandma and my neighbors. I think these stories are beautiful and valid and more than deserve their fair share of space onstage."

Their scripts were chosen from over 500 student submissions in this year's festival, and they were paired with a professional director and acting team. McGaw was matched with director Joan Mazzonelli for Green Light, and MacWilliams was paired with Pegasus' own executive director and producer of the festival since 2006, Ilesa Duncan.

Both Mazzonelli and Duncan come from backgrounds of new play development, with a great passion devoted to emerging authors and new work. "I'm passionate about new work and love the collaborative process of bringing it to life. A large part of my professional career has been as an arts educator/administrator," said Duncan. "The aspect of student writers being able to see their work professionally produced is immeasurable."

Both directors spoke glowingly about working with Gaw and MacWilliams, and the pleasure it was to help bring their work to life for the first time. "These are the stories that connect us to what's top of mind for many of today's young people," Duncan said. "The dawning of their talent and as the future of our industry, and that they connect deeply to their stories, themes and ideas."

"Alexis' voice and the voices of the other authors in the Young Playwrights Festival are literate, and smart," said Mazzonelli. "Their perspective is different. They have a fresh, honest and open vision. They have something to say and they need to be heard. These new young writers and artists are going to save the world. We need to listen and get on board."

Gaw and MacWilliams are both thrilled to have their work staged, and are hoping their audiences leave inspired. "I don't think I wrote a political play. I wrote a play about a boy, who happens to love other boys, and what this means for his friendships and his place in the world," Said Gaw. "He wants to be loved. It's a common experience for LGBT people, who might see their own emotions playing out on the stage. I know, because they're mine."

"I hope they laugh, I hope they smile, I hope they feel a little bit sad, I hope they feel a little bit angry at the world," said MacWilliams, " but mostly, I hope they feel involved."

Pegasus Theatre Chicago's 32nd Young Playwrights Festival runs through Saturday, Jan. 26, at The Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago Ave. To reserve tickets, visit .

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