The homegrown episodic play series “eLLe: New Positions,” the sixth season opener for Queer Theatre Kalamazoo, transforms the basement space of downtown Kalamazoo’s First Baptist Church into “the most wonderful play party in West Michigan.” Complete with a diversity of feminine bodies adorned with bustiers, handcuffs, whips, chains, and harnesses as well as strappy numbers of all variety, the house rules include “consent is sexy,” correct pronoun use is to be observed, “voyeurs are welcome,” “by all means make a mess but clean up after yourself,” and “whatever happens here stays here.”
This critic is flagrantly breaking that last rule, as the sex party that opens this play is meant to symbolize the larger plays within the play and party that unfold over the course of the next two hours. At times funny and touching, WMU grad Shawntai Brown’s script, though in many ways already a period piece, is mostly ironically unsexy and terrifically smart.
It’s also wonderfully important in the ways it gives voice and embodiment to the experiences of queer women in Kalamazoo, diving right into issues of racism as well as class, gender, age, and sexualities — while also aiming to be more personal than polemical — amid the cultural and political climate of 2015, described in the play as a “new America,” one in which gay marriage is legal.
Of course, so much has happened politically and culturally in the last three weeks, much less last three years, in terms of external forces at work on their freedoms and identities, that their millennial concerns about employment and student loan repayment and whether or not they actually want to be married amid the playful possibilities of polyamory and relationship anarchy, at times feel outdated if not downright quaint.
However, it’s also still remarkable to note how rarely these voices, these experiences, this world unapologetically and apolitically devoid of men, receives its own spotlight.
And amid the three acts and 10 carefully crafted, mostly two-person scenes set in Kalamazoo — thoughtfully directed by Sarah E. MacLean and simply lit by Laura Henderson in the humble black box space where the actors are sometimes upstaged by the sound of water running through pipes overhead — there are some transcendent performances that invite the kind of empathy theater done well makes possible.
At best, the actors make the verisimilitude of Brown’s language and the way these characters talk spring to life in the most endearing ways. Tim Cheathem is a natural and warm Devon, confidante and best friend to Lane, whose consternation, ambivalence and dilemmas (both relationship and work related) are captured with aplomb by Lisa M. Parker-Campbell. Max Quinn Hornick is extraordinary as Mia, the sober coffee shop owner who’s about to lose everything except their sense of humor.
Zaynee Hobdy plays Naya to the hilt, a rich character simultaneously in command and powerless, a force in her various roles who makes a tremendous impact on others. And Sam Slottow is a bright ray of sunshine as Izabel — needy, narcissistic, nuanced. She is a local talent to watch.
As is Queer Theatre Kalamazoo and its very promising ambitions. That there is such a dedicated community of artists committed to doing provocative new work that wonderfully complements Kalamazoo’s vibrant theater offerings speaks to the tremendous possibilities of what we can build together.
eLLe: New Positions
Queer Theatre Kalamazoo