The week that the leaders of True Colors learned that their LGBTQ youth theater group would be receiving a 2016 National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award at the White House, 49 people were murdered at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando.
“It really hit home that this safe space that these programs provide is so essential to the community,” says Evelyn Francis, 40, director of programming at The Theater Offensive, the group that spawned True Colors 22 years ago.
Made up of 10 performers ranging in age from 14 to 22, the group writes, produces, designs, and performs its own show every year. Most participants are youth of color who come from low-income families, first-generation immigrant households, or stints at foster homes. Their productions can range from comedies to musicals to more dramatic territory, like this year’s performance, a somber compilation of vignettes based entirely on the actors’ personal stories.
Founded by Theater Offensive’s Abe Rybeck in 1994, True Colors was among 12 youth humanities awards winners honored by first lady Michelle Obama at the White House last month, and the first LGBTQ organization to earn the recognition.
“For me, troupe means a place where I can have this time to focus on flexing my creative muscle,” says Jasper, 18. “I have all these great ideas but I just don’t have time to write them down. [True Colors] is a place where I can go to write and express myself and not worry about being judged.” (Like Jasper, some members asked that their last names not be used in this story because of concerns about their own safety or because their families are unaware of their participation in True Colors.)
Nick Bazo, 36, the troupe’s director, says stories of coming out, getting kicked out, or rejected by families and peers are startling but familiar to the LGBTQ community. True Colors’ mission, Bazo says, is to give young people a platform and opportunity to speak their own truth and build an accepting community around them.
“Theater in Boston is expensive, and audiences were getting older, and whiter, and smaller.” Bazo says. True Colors is trying to bend the curve in the other direction, opening up theater to a more diverse audience and to get young people engaged in the creative process. “Let them see themselves and their stories on stage,” he says “That has a deeper impact, but it’s a bigger risk.”
That risk is often felt most acutely by young actors like Karma Perez, 19, a Puerto Rican trans woman who speaks in the play about abuse, transitioning, getting kicked out of her home, and her search for her father. For youths whose lives have been shaped by family turmoil or questions about identity, True Colors provides an environment where they don’t need to fear judgment or criticism.
“It’s freeing to be here,” says Eli. “My mom and my dad — I came out to them recently [as transmasculine] and they try but they still don’t get it.”
The troupe has been working since September on this year’s play, called “OUT in Space.” The show — which will be presented and go on tour in the spring — focuses on the theme of “home.” Some scenes are reenactments of experiences of coming out to family members, others are fictionalized universes where being gay is not only illegal but punishable. Some are poetry, others are comedy. All of them are highly personal.
The troupe’s program is immersive and requires participants, who are paid for their work, to collaborate on every aspect of the play, including the script, costumes, lighting, and props. Peer-elected youth leaders guide the process with support from Bazo. Though members occasionally butt heads on creative visions for the play, Bazo says the resulting production stands as an example of their teamwork and cooperation.
Every year, True Colors brings these personal stories into the broader community with a touring production of its show. For the performers (most of whom are people of color) these shows — often at suburban, mostly white schools — are crucial to spreading their message of understanding. But they can also make them feel uncomfortable and vulnerable.
Jasper recalls a show last spring at a large suburban school that put those feelings in sharp relief. “When we were at lunch in their cafeteria, we were playing ‘spot the brown kid’ and we saw like maybe five, and there were hundreds of kids there. It was so weird, all of them were staring at us like we were zoo animals.”
Francis, of The Theater Offensive, says the only way to foster understanding and inspire change in a community is to share your stories of struggle and put them out for all to see.
“It’s about having an opportunity and a safe space for young people to be able to voice their concerns and their challenges, to really push back on the people that hold power in their lives and say, ‘Look, when you put this boundary up for me you are limiting my potential. You are limiting my ability to speak up for myself or do things for myself,’ ” she says. “True Colors really provides an opportunity for young leaders to stand up and say what they need in their lives while audiences sit and listen.”
Beyond the technical skills that members of the troupe learn, and regardless of whether they go on to become theater professionals, it’s the friendships and support network that some members say they value the most. At a rehearsal after last month’s presidential election, those bonds were apparent as the group hugged, held hands, and commiserated about a Trump-Pence administration, which they fear will be hostile to the LGBTQ community. Some reacted with bravado, others with tears. It was discussion that Bazo wanted them to have that night, even though scripts were due and there was work to be done.
“[True Colors] is a space where you’re in close quarters with other queer people and you get to build community. And honestly for me, it’s really hard to build community,” says Hasana Guzman, 18, who has been part of the group for almost three years. “I’m stuck now. Even if I wanted to, I’m like, I can’t leave, I just love it so much.”