Having come of age in the '90s, About Face Theatre Artistic Director Megan Carneynow in her 40sknows both the heartache and the joy that can accompany coming out. And while it's been a minute since Carney let the world know she identified as queer, she's reminded daily of the struggles young LBGTQIA people face while navigating their world.
"Sometimes I'm still shocked by what young people face. It's like 'you're getting harassed about where you go to the bathroom? How is that still happening?'" she said.
In directing playwright R. Eric Thomas's Time Is on Our Side, Carney is deep in the world of Millennials, their struggles and their connection with their forbearers. For youth today, the '70s might seem like ancient history. But in Thomas' drama, the past reaches into the present with an immediacy that's more right-here-right-now than back-in-ye-olden-days. Opening this week and running through April 7, Time Is on Our Side arrives as About Face's acclaimed youth program enters its third decade.
"For 20 years, we've been working to create safe spaces for our youth, places where they can be share, learn leadership, create, and find family. Those of us who are older, we need to keep reaching out to those of us who are younger," Carney said.
Thomas' play explores a bridge between generations in the story of Annie ( Maggie Scranton ) and Curtis ( Rashaad Hall ), a pair of twentysomething podcasters. Their weekly show explores history through a "queer lens," focusing on how LGBTQIA lived, loved and made history back in the day. Thomas's dialogue comes in popcorn-like bursts, skittering rapid-fire from pop culture, to Civil War history to Civil Rights-era heroes.
The plot is founded on the discovery of a diary from '70s, a book belonging to Annie's grandmother. Through her grandmother's sparse, sometimes cryptically worded entries, Annie uncovers some startling family secretsthings she's not willing to acknowledge, let alone accept.
As Annie and Curtis and their actor friends ( Riley Mondragon and Esteban Andres Cruz ) put together an episode on the Underground Railroad, Thomas shows African-American History and LGBTQIA history on parallel tracks. Throughout the comedy-laced-drama, the pull of the past and the fear of the future tussle both on the air and in the hearts of the present day podcasters.
"For African-Americans, it's almost impossible to trace your history past a certain point because of slavery. And for so many others in the LGBTQIA community, history was erased because people weren't safe saying who they really were. So you have these whole generations just missing from the scaffolding of history," Thomas said.
"There's a legitimacy that comes from knowing your roots, a sense that you aren't alone in the whole constellation of history," Carney added. "When you can't reach back and claim your roots, those feelingsboth of legitimacy and belongingcan be damaged," Carney said.
"We don't really learn our history through school or history books whatever," Carney added. "We have to go looking for it. The families we come from don't always model the kind of lives or partnerships we want for ourselves."
Thomas's inspiration for the Philadelphia-set play began while he was collecting oral histories of LGBTQIA Philadelphia seniors. The interviews left him to thinking about familiesboth biological and chosenas well as the deep-seated desire to connect that he found threaded through the seniors' stories.
"If you strip all the technology away from the play, you come down to a story that's all about the desire to really communicate with each other. Whether it's by podcast or email or carrier pigeonthe desire is the same. We all want to be to something larger, something bigger than ourselves," Thomas said.
"The play connects the dots through time," Carney said. "It asks ushow do we live in this moment we're in right now, this time when so many of us are experiencing fear and vulnerability about what right is going to get repealed nexthow do we survive this? It's useful to look back and ask, ok, how did people survive before? How did they make beautiful and loving communities and relationships for centuries, not just surviving but thriving, even through horrible oppression," she said.
"Through our youth program, I'm constantly meeting young people who are trying to figure out who they are, what shape their lives are going to take," Carney said. "They're looking for models, and those aren't easy to find. When the heart of the play really cracks open is when the charactersand the generations - really start listening and talking to each other."
About Face Theatre's Time Is on Our Side runs through Friday, April 7, at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave. Tickets are $20-$38; visit AboutFaceTheatre.com or call 773-975-8150.