Students watch Dr. Johnson’s sold-out show for free both virtually and in Philadelphia
By Jessi Walker
The bus picked up students outside of Rickenbach Learning Center at KU at 3 p.m. and headed to Plays & Players Theatre in Philadelphia on Thursday, Sept. 21 for the show at 7 p.m.
A pre-show from the Philadelphia’s Gay Men’s Chorus was also available at the start of the play as an extra event on top of “Covid Queertet.” They sang three songs from Elton John to help build hype for the production of the show.
Some students were able to view the show virtually on campus in either the Rickenbach Learning Center or the Academic Forum, live streamed by KU’s Live Production class in the Department of Cinema, Television and Media Production.
The play is about four actors who are rehearsing a play about the artistic works, identities, and legacies of Oscar Wilde, Willa Cather, José Sarria and Kutztown native Keith Haring. The characters were Martin/Oscar Wilde, played by Jerry Schmidt; Cara/Willa Cather, played by Monica Antonucci; Panzi/José Sarria, played by Jim Reed; and Rae/Keith Haring, played by Alfie Keno. The characters are rehearsing these famous artists for a future show that ties directly to the characters’ lives.
Deryl Johnson, a Communication Professor at KU, wrote and directed the play. Johnson said he set out to write a play about LGBTQIA identities. Johnson said, “It has been about twenty years since I helped create the LGBT resource center on campus, I was director of that for eight years and I wanted to do something with those.”
One important aspect of the play that he made note of was that “this might be the first time we have a trans or gender nonconforming play on campus [virtually], and the actor that is playing that role identifies as gender nonconforming.”
Keno, who played the role of Rae, said it was “an amazing experience and it was great to be able to represent my community.”
“The play does a really good job at lightly teaching people and holding their hand in a non-judgmental way to have a safe space to learn,” Keno said. “For people my age or even older who are struggling with their sexuality or with their gender, also have an outlet to see themselves.”
The play had elements of comedy and serious moments that revolve around the issues of identity expression after death. “If an artist is dead, it is hard for them to be ‘woke’ now,” Johnson said, “I wanted to explore that issue including outting people after their death, especially if they never talked about such issues and didn’t want their private life to come out.”
It focused on serious issues LGBTQ individuals face with struggles of acceptance and with bigotry and how hard it can be to navigate life with so many people who might be unwilling to learn about the matter.
The actor of the character Panzi, Reed, said that the play has “a whole lot going on” that young people and older people need to learn.
Johnson shared some struggles he faced with producing this play due to the COVID pandemic, as it interfered with his original intentions with the play.
“I was on sabbatical to write a play, and I was looking at possibly four LGBT important figures and I thought it would be called Queertet,” he said, “And then COVID happened and I couldn’t research all of the four of the people I wanted because we were in lockdown.”
“I turned to material I had at home that I had collected over the years,” he continued, “and people that I knew. There were a lot of things I couldn’t do because of COVID and that morphed into Covid Queertet.”
Some actors shared personal struggles about rehearsals. “Our first rehearsals were over Zoom,” Keno laughed.
Audience perception of the live show in Philadelphia was mixed because of the ambiguous ending. Students were confused, intrigued and unsure how to feel about “COVID Queertet” and the bus ride home to campus involved chatter about what that meant.
“It was a jarring ending,” one student said in regards to the ending.
“I sorta understand what he was going for, but I’m having trouble piecing it all together,” another student said.
After the show ended, Jim Reed understood that people might struggle with the ending. “That’s what we want everyone to think. To figure it out what happened [in their own interpretations.]”