Church of the Safe to Say It
BY SCOTT STIFFLER | It wasn’t that kind of Inaugural Ball.
Nobody looked past trans theater artist Maybe Burke’s talent; there was nary a word about who designed the clothes. Eyes didn’t dart when Natalie Douglas declared, “I’m a woman, so bleeding is political” before nailing a song about meeting Jesus in a Christopher Street gay bar. And not a single person in attendance answered the refrain of vocal trio Siren — “How am I going to be an optimist about this?” — with the snide suggestion that they just get over it already and give the new guy a chance.
There were, however, plenty of knowing nods when “SANCTUARY” co-creator Jonathan Cottle opened the month-long series by acknowledging, “Yeah. It’s been a day.”
Those assembled on January 20 in the mainstage space of Manhattan’s HERE Arts Center stood in stark contrast to how Donald J. Trump celebrated the first night of his presidency. Actually, they sat — cabaret-style, downing wine and beer and cheese puffs, and looking pretty damn good in the candlelight, given the grim tone of that day.
“SANCTUARY” seats marginalized artists in the front pew
By the 8:30 p.m. curtain, a number of progressive causes had been –– and, yes, remain –– ghosted from the White House website, and a prediction of the same fate for federal arts funding was among the ominous things occupying the top of everybody’s news feed. Although Twitter and Facebook know what you like to hear about, an informed algorithm doesn’t cut it when the thing you really need is a brick-and-mortar destination whose prime directive is to celebrate lives lived outside the margins.
Performances, dance events, panel discussions, and community organizing training sessions on the “SANCTUARY” schedule through February 18 may provide a safe space for participants, but the project itself is rooted in leaving one’s comfort zone.
Cottle, a set designer who created the church-meets-counterculture look of the space, told Gay City News, “We’re not a writing/ directing duo” — a disclaimer repeated at the “SANCTUARY” Inaugural Ball, where he and duo partner Adam Salberg, a sound designer, submerged themselves in the uncharted waters of hosting a variety showcase.
“Fair warning,” said Salberg, “I’m on enough Xanax to sedate a small horse.”
The natural-born techies and reluctant emcees didn’t have much to apologize for. Between the two of them, they turned out to be one fine Ed Sullivan. As for what you’ll see during the month-long series, Azure D. Osborne-Lee, Debra Morris, and Jenna Grossano (she of the nonprofit theater company Less Than Rent) were brought on board to curate the talent.
“We decided,” said Cottle, “to make the heart of this about providing a forum for artists who were from traditionally marginalized groups, who are targets of the administration: queer folks, feminists, people of color.”
The results of their effort include “Next Faggot Nation,” which ran January 27-29. Inspired by Larry Kramer’s 1978 novel “Faggots” (and a 2016 interview with the author), the Fossick Collective’s often damning but rarely cynical collage of songs, scenework, and video testimonials found its restless young cast well-informed by several centuries of oppression and defiance. Grateful for the political gains of the AIDS generation if not particularly enamored of their icons (they channel flip past Judy and Babs!), these post-PrEP, app-savvy searchers are at their best when asking uneasy questions about the future — and very purpose — of gay identity. Their contemplative nature suggests steady hands on deck for choppy waters ahead.
Upcoming at “SANCTUARY,” “Holding: A queer black love story” (February 14) has Alex Farr and Kimiko Matsuda-Lawrence performing monologues about bodies under attack, rights under siege, and tenderness as an act of “intimate resistance.” Panel discussions — including “Envisioning Full Gender Inclusivity in the American Theater: What Does It Look Like?” — are expected to land in the last two weeks of the schedule.
Many of the artists presented by “SANCTUARY” have been making personal, political, confrontational work, noted Cottle, “since way before the election, and they will continue to make work like this. We didn’t seek out any specific thematic material. We did get some stuff created in response to the election, but many people already had stuff that addresses racism or misogyny — and it’s made all the more relevant now.”
SANCTUARY | HERE Arts Center, 145 Sixth Ave., enter on Dominick St. | Through Feb. 18: most performances at 8:30 p.m. | Most tickets are $20 | Schedule, tickets at here.org or 212-352-3101