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Of bombs and men: Gender roles subverted in 'We're Gonna Be Okay'
by Karen Topham

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When Hawaii panicked because a government employee accidentally sent out warnings of an impending missile strike, very few considered such a thing unthinkable. Although it was a false alarm, the fact is that we're closer to nuclear war than at any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis, the topic of American Theatre Company's new play We're Gonna Be Okay.

Basil Kreimendahl, the play's author, said he was fascinated by the naivete of people who would "duck and cover" and build bomb shelters in their backyards. "I was struck by the way they tried to recreate the nuclear family perfect life down inside these shelters—the innocence of it."

In the play, one of the suburban dads insists on building a shelter, talking the other into it. The whole endeavor, complete with lunches served al fresco by the wives and teenage children joining in the action, seems like a Twilight Zone version of Leave It To Beaver.

Director Will Davis—a trans man, like Kreimendahl—felt the play portrays an "almost terrifyingly heightened experience of American masculine and feminine roles. Basil writes from a queer lens about things we would see in a different way."

In this play, two of the members of the nuclear families are queer: the teenage boy is gay and the teenage girl is lesbian. Asked about how unusual it is to see this characterization in a play about the early '60s, Davis responded that the play is not literally about 1962, but "an idea of 1962: us in the present moment looking at 1962 through the lens of nostalgia."

Avi Rouque, the trans actor who plays the boy, Jake ( a baseball player ), agreed with Davis, feeling that this is true "especially for someone like me who is trans and non-binary and Latinx and has these things that I've worked hard for that any minute could be taken away. There's a mask energy that he puts on: I get that, the need to hide, escape from your authentic self or truth because you are not ready to go there." The character stands in stark contrast to Deanna, the teenage girl who is so comfortable in her skin that it's a non-issue in the play.

But the play's focus is on the parents, especially the men, and this Chicago-premiere version allows Davis and Kreimendahl the opportunity to play with the gender element in new ways. Davis noted that the original cast was "entirely white and cis" and that its "queer inside life could probably come a little closer to the front if the casting was different." So, as Kreimendahl said, it's been cast "with some subversion."

This goes far beyond casting a trans man as Jake. In this version, both fathers are played by women. Kreimendahl said he feels this will help the audience sense things in terms of gender and exploration of masculinity more clearly: "As a trans man of course I think I write a lot about this—curious about gender and how we perform it, what does it mean? What are some of the social constructs of gender?"

Rouque agreed that this is an important element of the play. "I was grateful to be able to bring my personal queer and trans experiences to the character," they said. "I get it: I kind of went through that myself in high school, that desperation to be normal. ... What is normal?"

"Normal" is a word with little meaning We're Gonna Be Okay. With the threat of annihilation in the news and the ever-growing hole in the backyard for the bomb shelter, the world as these people have known it may have ceased to exist.

Davis said he likes to look at it as a metaphor: "On the one hand you have this sense of the end of things, and that's absolutely terrifying, but Basil has brought us the queering of that word 'annihilation': imagine a world in which we could topple or annihilate these tyrannical gender structures." In the shelter, he noted, entire new societal structures can be created. As one character notes, down there, "we are society." It's said out of fear, but, Davis pointed out, "we can reconstitute [society] the way we want to."

He said he believes that the show has already found success in the growth it has provided to its cast. "One of the great gifts that I have right now in ATC is the number of times an actor is cast and they say, I've never been cast as _____.' [This company tries] to create that space for joyful representation that doesn't minimize the fullness of their identities. That is alive and well in every actor cast in this show."

And neither gender nor the threat of bombs has much to do with it.

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