There is no other company in America like Freedom Train Productions. Bold and innovative, the theater group combines LGBT politics with queer black theater with a Brooklyn edge. As the director of new play development, I’m biased. But Freedom Train does fill a need that’s sorely lacking in both black culture and the gay mainstream. As someone who is African American and gay, I find that there aren’t many representations, stories, or heroes presented who look and sound like me. But thanks to people like Freedom Train artistic director, Andre Lancaster, that is changing.
I first met the artistic director of Freedom Train a few years ago when we were both in school. I had started an Emerging Black Playwright group to bring African American playwrights and producers together. The idea was in response to sitting in on an ART/NY meeting of artistic directors who asked me: ‘Where are the young black playwrights?’
EBP formed around that question with the intention of showcasing the talent of the ‘new and found.’ Among the writers were me, Thomas Bradshaw, and Andre Lancaster. We were all extremely different, opinionated, and highly individualistic. Perhaps that’s why the group lasted for only one showcase. Thomas went on to have his off-broadway success, I started getting writing fellowships and residencies that sent me around the country for a few years, and Andre got involved in gay rights activism and art.
Truth is, Andre was involved in gay rights politics and art back then. I just preferred not to ask. When he first walked in to the Emerging Black Playwrights meeting he sported a Mohawk, queer power pins, and a James Baldwin button. I’m gay, but I’m also homophobic. I was never comfortable in my skin and people like Andre reminded me, like a bright neon sign, of my own discomfort. Furthermore, I have the excellent mask of being extremely ‘straight acting.’ I wasn’t on the down-low or keeping girlfriends around for appearances. But I was definitely living in camouflage like millions of others.
I was out—if you asked me in private. I had written queer stories, been in parades even. But I wouldn’t offer up any personal information unless specifically asked. Otherwise, I was comfortable with friends probing about my ‘potential girlfriends’ and just smiling.
People like Andre, though, silently bullied and pushed my buttons. My homophobia would kick in: “Did he have to wear the Baldwin button AND the queer power rainbow flag paraphernalia? Wasn’t one enough?” No, apparently not.
After EBP, I didn’t hear anything from Andre for a few years. Then there was word of a grant, social funding, and finally the birth of Freedom Train. I was out of the city when I got an email.
Mixing gay politics and theater always made me suspicious. I’ve had bad experiences in both. When I went to Northwestern, I briefly got involved in gay politics. I went to a BGALA open house for new students with my fairer-complexioned roommate. He was welcomed, emailed, invited out to parties. I was invisible. No greeting, no welcoming, no email, no invites. I was the fat girl standing in the corner at prom. That was pretty much the extent of my experience in a mainstream gay organization, so I stayed away.
Artistically, my early experience in gay theater wasn’t much better. Even though I was a film major I wrote a play and sent it out a known theater in the Midwest. The artistic director of said theater called me in to talk. He was a gay man of significance and I was a student playwright. What I thought might be a point of camaraderie instead turned into uncomfortable situation. I began receiving messages on my phone describing his state of dress, what he was wearing. The man was acting out the predatory stereotype of the gay man. It was hinted at several times that if I wanted to get my play produced certain things needed to be done. I walked away from the situation feeling disgusted. My play was never put up.
Although gay in my personal life, I steered clear of most gay political groups, arts organizations, or communities. The old feelings of either being invisible or prey to lecherousness would creep up.
Carrying all this baggage with me, I approached Andre Lancaster’s idea of a new theater and a safe space. He presented Freedom Train as a place for young Black LGBT artists and other artists of color to explore their craft, to get involved in the community, and to find their voice. I applied for and got a Freedom Train playwright residency in 2008. Three playwrights were thrown into a 6-month blender of art, culture, politics, and freedom. All the things that had to be suppressed as a gay man in a black theater group or as a black man in a gay theater group were allowed to flow in panel discussion, talkbacks, and our writing. What came out of the residency was incredibly rich, colorful, controversial and poetic from three distinctive writers. The plays were political without being strident, activist in tone without being shrieking. And I think we all found a new richness to the music in our voices.
After the residency, I only wondered one thing: why can’t all my artistic endeavors be this satisfying? A few months later Freedom Train won a Union Square Award and began hiring an official staff. As director of new play development, I want to give the same kind of experience to other Black LGBT artists. We need a place of development. We need a home. I think we’ve found one in Freedom Train Productions.
Freedom Train is tearing down the walls of racism and homophobia. I remember that when I’m working. I try to remember who I’m really helping out and whose walls am I really tearing down? Only my own.
Aurin Squire is a playwright and reporter who lives in South Park Slope. He is also co-creator and writer for the online cartoon Bodega Ave.