When Joseph Varisco, the creator and emcee behind QUEER, ILL & OKAY took the stage, he explained that this evening of LGBTQA and Illness focused night of performance art was brought about by his inability to feel connected to similar queer-focused Chicago performance. Appropriately, there were no strangers in the packed DfbrL8r Gallery, and anyone with the mistaken impression that they were not somehow connected to the action unfolding in front of them need only see our host Varisco to be tapped to operate a light fixture or hold a corner of a draping black silk.
The majority of the audience for QIO are already performers, artists and die-hard fans, embracing the steamy climate and seated well past capacity in every inch of floor space they can grab, prepared for the sort of art that can change shape and texture depending on their response. They’ve come to take part in something nervy and honest, that welcomes all but defies us to hold it in judgment (and is especially impossible to review). Varisco’s artist collective have opened up their wounds so that we can view them in cross-section, sometimes laughing, sometimes in pain and sometimes with a finger pointed squarely at all of us. For some performers, the sentiment goes beyond words; they dance, falter and yowl when they can do nothing else. The sole character that never escapes the stage is illness, and each artist gives shape and from to their personal demon, whatever it may be.
Tim’m West helps us absorb the candidness and bitterness of his daily HIV treatment tedium by coating his story in the sugar of his music and poetry, with a special testament to anyone who has ever felt maligned by the dagger of biased internet dating profiles insisting prospects ‘must be disease free’.
Chris Knowlton draws us (quite literally) through the labyrinthine medical maze of sperm donation and a cancer treatment program simply not built to accommodate a man of his sexuality.
Not wanting to give her illness any airtime, Mary Fons dispenses with the spoken word. Instead she provides her own snide subtitles that belie a deep love and emotional debt she owes to her sisters, who battled her illness, too. She celebrates them (and all caretakers) with music and “borrowed” wine. Emerging from under a smooth black fabric, Cruel Valentine pushes its limits and fights her way out of its confines to be birthed proudly into the world, draped in the fabric she departed. If she hasn’t escaped her prison, she has at least mastered it, and found a way to hold her own.
Dirty Grits places his illnesses and neuroses in the seat of a chair and speaks to them as if they were an old friend (‘remember when we tried to go to church?’ ‘remember when we alienated everyone?’), and demands answers from his audience, asking why we looked away when he’d reached his lowest point and holding us accountable. From beside a pile of laundry, Patrick Gill recounts the charming denial that allowed him and his family to gloss over his ever worsening health concerns, and how the minutiae of a pile of dirty clothes allowed him some ill-advised distance from the disease which almost took his foot.
Hovering over a bucket of ice water, NIC Kay silently reacts as an overhead voice singing Des’Ree’s ‘You Gotta Be’ changes from confident and in-tune to dissonant and fraught with audio feedback. NIC responds to the feedback by burying their head into the ice until the sweet music returns. Sara K. becomes the members of her immediate family in living documentary, as each loved one recounts their experience of a particularly grim episode for Sara herself. Each of them comes alive, holding themselves, sitting and addressing the documentarians’ camera a little bit differently as they look back on the day their world became different.
QIO is a special, almost untouchable sort of performance arena because in every avenue, it succeeds. Each artist wields their story like a brand new theatrical weapon, and is a master of their own, unteachable art, laid out for our appreciation. Varisco has ensured this concept has such draw for artists on the outside and the outsider that exists in each of us can’t wait to return for future performances and see who the audience encompasses next.
The Show: QUEER, ILL & OKAY (Conceived by Joseph Varisco & JRV MAJESTY)
Venue: DfbrL8r Art Gallery
You can find Sean Margaret on Twitter: @SMargaretWagner
Read More at Sporkability