With the help of partners like the Howard Brown Health Center and The Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, the QUEER, ILL & OKAY showcase for 2015 made a great big splash at the Storefront Theater this past Friday. The space was teeming with a diverse audience, and even more diverse slate of storytellers, performance artists, lecturers, poets, dancers and designers. Emcee and curator for the evening Joseph R. Varisco begged our forgiveness for any rough edges not sanded down after an 11-hour tech rehearsal, but the resulting evening of honest, genre-spanning, and new work was a great testament to the crew’s behind-the-scenes investment.
The new component of this annual showcase was the presence of fledgling artists, handpicked and mentored by former QIO alumni, some making their Chicago stage debuts. Varisco and his panel of curators hosted workshops and considered applicants from a community of QUEER, ILL & OKAY performers that has grown with QIO’s guidance.
Writer-performer Amir Rabiyah opens the show with a spoken word exploration of being queer, disabled, trans and juggling multiple identities. In a prayer, Rabiyah implores listeners to stop asking chronically ill to ‘get well soon’. “Being sick forever terrifies people,” Rabiyah says, and dozens of snapping fingers echo the sentiment.
With little more than a bed frame, nurse’s cap and slides of old photos, Joan Giroux acts as a hospice nurse for lifelong friend Matthew Ranger, who lived with HIV/AIDS in the late 80’s and is notably absent. Matthew’s life flashes by in the reading of his letters, punctuated by hospital ritual. Performer Scott Artley cedes his stage time to ‘Tender Vittles’, his vivacious, green velvet draped drag persona, letter her tell the story of coming to terms with his chronic diabetes and how his gayness went from latent to full-fledged. When his father nixed his fifth grade dreams of being catwoman for Halloween, Tender Vittles admits, “That year I wore two costumes; a dog and a little boy trying hard not to be a fag.”
After striking out on her own, performer Ireashia Monet, finds herself lost in an endless sea of grief and depression after her grandfather passes away. She finds solace not in fickle friends, but in a mother who struggles with depression of her own. Oli Rodriguez lectures about his own unique Chicago childhood (“I was born in a gay disco”), and a generation of poor men of color, like his own father, who did not live to lay claim to ungentrified Lincoln Park or to pass their wisdom to the next generation of gay young men.
Allie Shyer punctuates her mother’s story of battling illness, inherited traits and uncooperative doctors to obtain a multiple sclerosis diagnosis with gorgeous, dreamlike poetry. Donnell Williams projects lovely, lonesome multimedia dances onto the brick walls of the Storefront. Williams dances in mourning onscreen, as an onstage counterpart writes and mounts countless names in memoriam of lives lost.
Finally, Sky Cubacub and a troupe of models for Rebirth Garments are introduced cryptically as QueerCrips, or living contradictions in a society that want us dead (Varisco warns playfully that if any member falls they are capable of getting back up). What follows is a colorful burlesque that is all encompassing and incorporating. It is a dance party, a fashion show and an unstoppable orgy of color, texture and moving bodies. I was partial to a multi-colored chainmail tuxedo coat, a clear plastic corset and a spandex bodysuit in a textile I’d describe as ‘wood grain’. Audience members were encouraged to get closer and have a look, and only then was it clear just how each piece was crafted specifically for the wearer and their physical differences. Rebirth’s models spanned the spectrum of size, shape, ability, gender identification, and inclusive of even the evening’s performers appearing in lingerie to close out the show.
With QUEER, ILL & OKAY, Varisco and his growing team of curators are continuing to build on a community of outspoken activists. I hope the work of these evenings grows this program to reach those queer, ill performers still searching for a space.
The Show: QUEER, ILL & OKAY (Conceived by Joseph R. Varisco & JRV MAJESTY)
Venue: Storefront Theater (66 E. Randolph St.)
You can find Sean Margaret on Twitter: @SMargaretWagner