Theatre En Bloc strives to unite GLBTQ history with action in new play, JustOutside Redemption
Theatre En Bloc's artistic directors, Jenny Lavery and Derek Kolluri, admit up front that they are incurable idealists.
The 30 and 31-year-old theatre artists began their new company in a city already teeming with independent theatre companies, hoping to stand out with a mission statement geared toward promoting new voices through theatrical works that unite diverse communities.
While you may have heard these buzz words used quite liberally by many of Austin's abundant independent theatre companies, you don't often find the kind of product that backs up those promises. With their newest venture, Just Outside Redemption, Theatre En Bloc is working harder than most to prove they've got the follow-through.
The new play, written by playwright Dennis Bailey, dramatizes the efforts of Texas GLBTQ rights activist Dianna Hardy-Garcia, who, while at the Lesbian/Gay Rights Lobby of Texas, was instrumental in pushing the inclusion of sexual orientation into the eventual James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act that passed in 2009.
The act is monumental in many regards because it extends the definition of a hate crime to include a perpetrator's perception of a victim's sexual orientation, gender, gender identity or disability, providing some of the first protection for transgendered persons. It also requires the FBI to track instances of perceived hate crimes based on these qualities.
"Most people our age and younger have no idea who Dianne is or that this national piece of legislation happened right here in Texas," explains Lavery, with an enthusiasm that comes from working first hand with one's subject for an extended period of time. "We rely on the protections of the act, but we don't know where those protections come from."
Because their subject is still a prominent face in the advocacy world, it was imperative that the members of Theatre En Bloc get to know the subject matter intimately, including all of the ugly details in the state's hate crime history.
"In our research we learned so much about the rest of the country and the state and the city that we live in. We have more 'safe zones' than most cities. It's easy to take that for granted in Austin." Kolluri says, considering his words before he continues. "We're trying to provide the voice then for those who have no voice in their communities — only a whisper."
Kolluri details a haunting scene from the upcoming production where a small town candlelight vigil for a gay hate crime victim is attended by observers who fearfully wear bags over their heads to conceal their identities. Even in a moment of community solidarity, survivors have to maintain a necessary level of fear.
While neither Lavery nor Kolluri identify as gay, they have both seen and experienced their fair share of discrimination either towards themselves or to friends and family members.
"We ask ourselves every day 'Why are we the right ones to tell this story? Are we doing this justice, and are we being as honest as we can be?'" says Kolluri. "But we are speaking to human universals. Inequality affects all of us."
To keep their message ringing true, the Theatre En Bloc directors also had Hardy-Garcia herself present to walk them through the mountain of legal jargon surrounding the case and the minefield of years of personal heartbreaks and triumphs she and hundreds of her friends experienced in this epic uphill battle.
"She personalized [Bailey's] story and taught us all about the politics that were involved in the legal battle" explains Lavery. "She showed us the difference between the language of art and politics. It's very easy to mess up the dialogue so it sounds prettier; but these are real people in the play, and we wanted to stay true to their words."
The ethnographic writing techniques and multiple-role casting of a small company of actors conjures to mind another piece of well-known playwriting, The Laramie Project, which took a similar approach to dramatizing the details surrounding the death of Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming.
The timing and tactics of Theatre En Bloc's production feels then like a necessary continuation of this same universal story of evolving toward GLBTQ rights. Just Outside Redemption's new setting for the common story highlights the universality of the message and the abundant need for continued change in every corner of the country.
Kolluri and Lavery both recognize the enormous scope of their project, realizing that what matters most about the production is not the appreciation of its artistry in the moment, but the further action and dialogue it inspires in its audience members after the show.
"The process is open but it's not complete unless someone is moved enough to think about it later," explains Kolluri. "The audience is the most important aspect of this production, and it can only happen if the right people are put in front of the right piece of art. The kind of catharsis we strive for is a delicate chemistry, and that's never an accident."
Of course, both directors accept that the majority of their audiences will already be proponents for equal rights legislation. So the next step is inspiring these individuals into action.
"It's about educating the younger community about the past and what happened to get them where they are today and to reach the older generation about how to make change happen now," says Lavery, enthusiastically. "It's a social call to action."
"What is most amazing to me is that Dianne was essentially the same age as myself and Derek when she was fighting for these rights over at the Capitol. She's a perfect reminder of just how much difference one person can make."
"Yeah, we're idealists," smiles Kolluri. "But if you can't idealize, how do you make it better?"
Just Outside Redemption plays at City Theatre Thursdays thru Sunday, Sep 13 - 30 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $15.00 for adults and $10.00 for students and seniors and available only through phone. The company is also throwing a fundraising gala performance on Friday, Sep 14 that will include food and drink for $25.00.