Advances in equal rights for LGBT people – along with the struggles that remain – filtered through the imagination of theatrically inclined teenagers should make for intriguing performances this weekend when the Coterie Theatre presents "Gears and Queers," the result of the third annual Project Pride.
Project Pride begins with group discussions and improvisation exercises, then culminates a few weeks later with a staged production of vignettes created and shaped by the teenaged cast.
"They're creating work that explores what their situation is, what their life is like being in the Kansas City area in 2016, what it's like to be LGBTQ or a straight ally as a teen," said Amanda Kibler, the Coterie’s director of education.
The title "Gears and Queers," Kimbler explained, reflects the goal of this year's cast: "They are creating a machine powered with love that creates all of these scenes, and by the end of the show it generates understanding."
Kibler said Project Pride audiences can expect to see a range of emotions.
This year's vignettes examine serious issues such as bullying and homelessness, and the cast created a tribute to people who have lost their lives to hate crimes based on their sexual orientation and gender expression, Kibler said.
“But we also go on the bright side, celebrating what it means to be prideful, what it means to be excited and celebrate who you are and find those support systems that you need. Some of the pieces are very poignant. Some are goofy and fun.”
Eighteen-year-old Sam Chapin agreed.
"There are also personal stories," he said, "and a lot of times it's trying to generalize an idea of what we're trying to convey: understanding and love. We start with love and come to understanding."
In one vignette, pizza toppings serve as a metaphor for sexual orientation: As a teen and her parents debate what to order, the girl is hungry for ham and pineapple while her parents insist on a more traditional pepperoni.
For a scene about combating homophobia, a superhero character named Mega Damn Gurl blasts people who don't share her open-mindedness. Other topics include the oppression that comes with being labeled by other people; how to find a community; and how to advocate for other disenfranchised groups.
Before a recent rehearsal, a few of the teenagers said they were exploring social inequality, coming out, AIDS, and the role of social media in helping young people assert their identities.
“Through social media, people are more introduced to newer ideas: ‘Oh, this is an actual thing going on and it’s happening everywhere and I’m a part of it in some weird crazy way,’” said A.J., who goes to a private school in Kansas City.
“Also,” A.J. said, “more influential people, like celebrities, movie stars and singers and actors, are coming out in favor of the LGBTQ community, and these are people millions of people look up to."
The students said they felt less pressure to label themselves, but they identified themselves as gay, lesbian, a straight ally, binary, and novosexual. The teens said their production deals with bullying, though one of them, Brie, who lives in Johnson County, said there seems to be less of it than in recent years.
"Olathe Northwest is generally a safe place for most people," she said, "but there are still people who don't fully understand. It's more they don't understand than 'Gay people are gross.'"
A high-schooler named Bianca, from the Blue Springs area, said she became interested in Project Pride while still questioning her sexuality and gender identity.
"I knew I identified with the LGBTQ community, and when I found out about (Project Pride), I said, 'Wow. Theater and gay stuff? This is the thing for me,'” she says. “I've never seen anything like this. My school doesn't have a GSA (Gay Straight Alliance), so this is pretty big for me."
Kibler said working with the young performers gives her hope for the future, and she hopes audience members leave with that same feeling.
“Young people today are really taking ownership of their lives,” she said, “and trying to create a more equal and accepting community."
Steve Walker is a freelance arts reporter and film critic at KCUR 89.3. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Project Pride, 7 p.m. Saturday, March 5 and 5 p.m. Sunday, March 6, The Coterie Theatre, 2450 Grand Avenue, Kansas City, Missouri, 64108, 816-474-6552, www.thecoterie.org.