The About Face Youth Theatre Ensemble is ready to rock with Brave Like Them. The world-premiere play with punk music explores the pluses and minuses of the underground "riot grrrl" movement of the 1990s, and is devised by an LGBTQIA youth group.
Admittedly, many of the group members ( who are between the ages of 13 to 23 ) had limited exposure to the overtly feminist songs of riot grrrl bands like Bikini Kill, Bratmobile and Sleater-Kinney. Nowadays bisexual Sleater-Kinney bandmate Carrie Brownstein is often better-known for co-creating and co-starring in the IFC sketch comedy series Portlandia with former Saturday Night Live ensemble member Fred Armisen.
But it was Kyla S. Norton, a member of About Face's Youth Task Force, who proposed the idea of riot grrrls. This is vital, since the subjects for the annual About Face Youth Theatre Ensemble show needs to come from the members themselves rather than from the adult leadership.
"It really came from Kyla wanting to talk about grassroots movements and how they are created and where they come from and where they fail," said Ali Hoefnagel, About Face's education and outreach director and interim artistic director. "So we thought that this was really a topical thing to get into for the year and the riot grrrl movement would be a really fun way to examine movements and how they often fail folks of color and trans folks and queer folks."
Hoefnagel and About Face education coordinator Kieran Kredell, both co-directors of Brave Like Them, were initially tight-lipped when Norton proposed the project. That's because they are "huge fans of riot grrrl music, and so we had to play our cards right and not let them know about how excited we were about that."
To inspire the ensemble ( and to educate themselves ), Hoefnagel, Kredell and Norton did a lot of dramaturgical research into fan zines of the time and through books like Sara Marcus' Girls to the Front and Lisa Darms' The Riot Grrrls Collection. Zine images were copied and pasted up all over the rehearsal room like a museum so ensemble members could gravitate toward images and articles that might speak to them.
"It was one of the more youth-driven feminist movements and relatively recent, too," said 18-year-old About Face Youth Theatre Ensemble member Sandy Nguyen. "It was really eye-opening to see the artwork that came out of the movement."
Ensemble members listened to riot grrrls music and studied lyrics at the beginning of each workshop session. The whole group also watched the 2013 documentary The Punk Singer about Kathleen Hanna of the band Bikini Kill.
"When we finished watching The Punk Singer, everyone said Kathleen Hanna is the coolest person ever. How could we not know who this person was beforehand?" Hoefnagel said. "If you ask any of them, they thought this was really, really cool as an overtly political, overtly loud movement and we echo those things in our overtly political and loud play."
Unlike previous About Face Youth Theatre Ensemble plays where the actors were essentially playing stage versions of themselves, Brave Like Them is a character-driven play set in the 1990s. It follows the characters Danni and Julie as they become newly exposed to riot grrrl bands and their different responses at feeling welcomed or shunned by the movement.
"It's really an interesting challenge to uplift a movement that meant so much to so many people that was in its own right an incredibly revolutionary scene at the time and maintains its valor," Hoefnagel said. "But it did have, like a lot of movements, have its own inherent class, racial and gender discrepancies that we are tasked with pointing out as well. I think the show does a really good job of not just simply criticizing the moment for not doing a great job, but also celebrating all the good that came out of it as well. It's an interesting juxtaposition."
"In my identity as being a queer woman, the riot grrrl movement and its history was really fascinating to me, because I see a lot of their influence on modern-day works of art and poetry. The zines and the symbols that came out of that movement and the ideas of self-love and the power that women havethey're still values that I hold today," said Nguyen, who plays the role of Jamie. "At the same time to really respect something of the past, you need to see the faults and the disappointments that came of it."
Brave Like Them also is a swan song for both Nguyen and Hoefnagel. Nguyen heads off to Los Angeles to study at Occidental College this fall, while Hoefnagel will be moving to Pittsburgh to be the artistic program director for a queer youth arts organization.
"I've been working with About Face for about four years and I'm incredibly proud of the work we've done," Hoefnagel said. "It's been the best thing I've ever done with my life—doing these shows with this theater. And luckily I'll be able to maintain working with youth in creating queer theater. I'm proud that Brave Like Them will be the last one that I'll be at the helm at."
About Face Youth Theatre's world premiere of Brave Like Them continues through Sunday, Aug. 6, in The Buena space of the Pride Arts Center, 4147 N. Broadway St. Performances are 7 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays with 3 p.m. matinees Sundays. Tickets are $20 or pay-what-you-can. Call 773-784-8565 or visit AboutFaceTheatre.com .