Showing Their True Colors: LGBT Youth Theater Group Honored at White House.
In these difficult days after the presidential election, we’re looking to not just our present but our future LGBT leaders — and an organization that has nurtured future leaders is going to be recognized for its work Tuesday at the White House.
Boston-based True Colors: Out Youth Theater, the nation’s longest-running queer youth theater group, will receive the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award from First Lady Michelle Obama. One of 12 honorees, it’s the first LGBT organization to receive this award.
“It feels triumphant” to be chosen for the award, says Abe Rybeck, executive artistic director of Theater Offensive, the organization behind True Colors. The organization has been a finalist several times, having “Susan Lucci moments,” he says, referring to the perenially Emmy-nominated soap star who finally won on her 19th nomination. The real honor, he adds, goes to the young people involved. The award recognizes “their importance and their leadership,” he says.
Theater Offensive, founded in 1989, created True Colors in 1994. “When we started doing this, using the words ‘queer theater company’ and ‘youth’ in the same sentence made people bristle,” Rybeck recalls. Now the company has been accepted to the point that it’s being honored at the White House, where at least the current occupants are LGBT-supportive.
“Now we have a chance to get a hug from a first lady who has done more for our community than any other first lady,” he notes. It’s hard to imagine what the White House atmosphere will be like for the groups that win this award next year, he says.
The True Colors theater program predates and is not connected with Cyndi Lauper’s True Colors Fund, which seeks to end LGBT youth homelessness, but it’s certainly informed by the inclusive, accepting spirit of her song of that name, Rybeck says. He and his colleagues initiated the program because they saw a need for it among Boston’s young people.
“Young people need these creative outlets to feel who they are and become the community leaders we need,” he says.
He recalls his experience growing up as a self-described “queer hillbilly” in West Virginia in the 1970s. His family was accepting, his schoolmates less so. In 1974, when Rybeck was in ninth grade, his older brother came home from college and gave him a pamphlet on the recently formed National Gay Task Force (now the National LGBTQ Task Force). Rybeck did a report on it for his social studies class, then promptly got beaten up in the restroom.
“I thought, they don’t even know who they are, but I do know who I am,” he says of his attackers today. So he grew up to harness the power of theater to help young people — and adults — know and accept who they are.
In True Colors, LGBT and allied youth aged 14 to 22 write and perform plays based on their personal stories. And they don’t ask their audience to come to them; they bring their work to all the neighborhoods of Boston, performing in schools, community centers, private homes, and other venues. Theater Offensive uses the same model for its all-ages program, Out in Your Neighborhood.
The young people have the support of not only the Theater Offensive staff but a variety of guest mentors who are well-known for their work on the stage and screen. Over the years they have included Billy Porter, Lisa Kron, Alexandra Billings, Faith Soloway, Brian Freeman of Pomo Afro Homos, and Vogue Evolution, a troupe that competed on America’s Best Dance Crew.
Over its lifespan, True Colors has served nearly 1,000 youth. Participation has quadrupled in just the past five years, Rybeck notes, with 157 youth involved last year, and the number is continuing to grow this year; the program starts in the summer each year, and young people come in throughout the next 12 months. About 75 percent of those currrently involved are youth of color, and 40 percent are transgender or gender-nonconforming. The program has always had a big representation of these groups, but the proportion of trans and gender-nonconforming youth is particularly high this year, Rybeck says.
ViQuan, a young queer man who became involved with True Colors at age 17 in 2010 and is now a member of its Youth Advisory Council, says his work with the group has been rewarding. “Throughout my time it has been very uplifting,” he says. “It helps me acknowledge who I am.”
He started with the program shortly after his mother’s death, when he was living in a foster group home for LGBT young people, and a counselor there suggested he check it out. “The work that they do is very honest, it is truthful, it is relatable to everybody,” he says of True Colors. In 2013, for instance, the troupe did a show dealing with Black Lives Matter. He has had other young people thank him for telling their stories, in addition to adults who note that they never got such opportunities in their youth.
ViQuan, with his wealth of experience, now has ambitions to start his own theater company. Besides his activity with True Colors, he works with another Boston theater group, Company One, performs in drag in his Neon Calypso persona at various clubs, and has a day job in a clothing store.
He’s very gratified that True Colors is receiving National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award. “To get this award has a huge meaning,” he says.
Rybeck is certainly gratified as well, even as he looks to the difficulties many in the nation will face under a Donald Trump presidency. “This is not the first challenge our movement has faced, and creativity and connection are exactly what’s going to be needed,” he says. “True Colors youth are still going to be our leaders of tomorrow. We need their leadership to turn this around.”
“I’m proud of where my generation has made steps forward,” he adds. “But we’re counting on this next generation to step up to meet the challenges.”
The awards ceremony will be live-streamed at 2 p.m. Eastern Go to WhiteHouse.gov/live to view. To learn more about Theater Offensive and True Colors, visit TheTheaterOffensive.org.
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