For a long time now, Fuse Theatre Ensemble has been one of the most openly political theater companies in town. Queer-forward, inclusivity has been a hallmark and a principle of its work for years. But this season is different. This season, the crowning gem of Fuse’s OUTwright Festival is Robert O’Hara’s Booty Candy, and, for a theater company that prides itself on pushing boundaries and upsetting expectations, this production is yet another new direction.
For eight years Fuse’s OUTwright Festival, which this year continues through June 30 at the Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center, has been one of the most anticipated and adventurous events of the theatrical year. It’s never quite the same from one season to the next. Sometimes it engages several venues, sometimes only one. It started out as only table readings of scripts, but now incorporates readings, full productions, and forums exploring a variety of topics centered on the company’s mission. Whatever the offerings, however many venues, whoever the artists are that are involved, the goal of the OUTwright Festival stays constant. “The mission never really changes,” says Fuse Artistic Director Rusty Tennant. “We’re here to celebrate the queers.”
Tennant, who wears many hats as a theater artist (director, scenic designer, actor, technical director, teacher are just the ones I know off the top of my head) is forthright about what makes this particular OUTwright Festival different from the ones that have gone before. “The focus of this year’s festival,” he says, “is centering people of color and underrepresented groups within the LGBTQIA-plus umbrella.” When asked why this was the year to focus on people of color in the queer community, Tennant says simply, “Because we hadn’t.”
Dating back to last year, Tennant had decided that needed to change. Destiny, as they say, took a hand when theater artist James Dixon brought Tennant the script. “Rodney Hicks had sent it to me for a monologue,” Dixon remembers. “I sent it to Rusty, I said, ‘Here, take a look at this.’
Tennant loved it, and presented it in last year’s festival as a staged reading directed by Lava Alapai and starring Dixon. And that was that. “The crowd loved it,” remembers Dixon. Tennant concurs: “The audience went absolutely nuts over it.”
When it came time to produce the full production, Alapai was no longer available and Dixon, by his own admission, wasn’t really right for the role he’d read last year. “I’m at that point in my acting career,” he laughs, “where I can’t be playing teenagers.” Tennant had another idea. It was Dixon who had brought him the script, Dixon who had previously taken the script around to other theaters and not been able to get it produced, Dixon who was determined that the Rose City should experience this play. “Well,” Dixon remembers Tennant saying, “why don’t you direct it?”
There was some trepidation, some fear. Dixon, a talented actor, had never directed before. But both Dixon and Tennant felt it was important that someone black and queer direct it. “How many black queer directors do we have in this town, anyway?” asks Dixon. “I know there’s Lava. I’m sure there are others. But you know, the time is now. I took it on.” Having a black queer director was important simply for the connection to the truth of the story being told. There are going to be nuances and subtleties that a black queer person is going to be hip to and understand that someone from a different population might not. “The character in this show, Sutter, reminds me a lot of my own upbringing and a lot of what I went through trying to navigate my own sexuality,” Dixon says. “What I love about this play the most is that it gives us permission to be unapologetic about it and be like, ‘Hey, this is a life that I lived. I can tell you about it. And I can be proud of it.’ Especially for me, being queer and black. It’s not always easy being out in our communities.”
When talking to Dixon, it becomes apparent why he was Tennant’s clear choice to direct Booty Candy. It’s not just a gig for him. It’s a passion project, a mission. It’s personal. “This is my story,” he says, “and this is Robert (O’Hara)’s story, who wrote it. I’m hoping there will be other young black men – or other people — who will be in the audience and be like, ‘Yes, this is my story.’ It’s really messy and complicated but from a queer perspective there’s a lot of us that have a similar path like that, where we’ve had to deal with sexual assault or having to navigate our sexuality.”
But both Dixon and Tennant want to make it clear that though this story is about a specific population, everyone should be able to see some of part of themselves in it. “That’s what I love the most about this show,” says Dixon. “I think everybody in the audience will have someone in the show that they’ve known or seen or can relate to.” Tennant concurs: “It’s a story for everybody. I have not seen the person yet who has not laughed at the script.”
For any theater artist, that’s the ultimate goal. Dixon is very clear about this. His connection to the script, his story being told, the sociopolitical capital for the black queer community, all of it is predicated on good art. “People deserve the best show they can get,” says Dixon. “It can’t be about me and it can’t be about Fuse; it’s gotta be about the people sitting in the audience.” He repeats this — or some version of it — again and again, like a mantra. It’s the kind of thing that any practicing theater artist recognizes as perhaps the hardest struggle: keeping the focus on the story and the audience. That’s always the first goal. Simple as it sounds, a lot of things can get in your way.
“It has been challenging,” Dixon said on the eve of his opening. “The things I thought would be hardest about it – it’s less about the creative side of things; I think that’s the easiest part. It’s the people management. I had to collect myself. The one thing everyone says is, ‘Breathe.’ I literally have to remind myself to breathe. Like, last night, I had to do that twenty times.” The journey from actor to director can be complex emotionally. “Everything I’ve ever done to any director, I go, ‘Dammit James. Okay, that’s what they were talking about, right there.’ I love that that’s come back full circle, because it makes me understand a different perspective.
“It makes me use a different part of my brain because it’s not just about me anymore (as an actor). It’s about the audience. They need a good show. So I’m moving to different parts of the space. I’m listening to how the sound is carrying. There are so many moving parts. You feel like your brain’s gonna fall apart.” He tells an interesting story about how he kept his cool at trying times. “I actually had a piece of paper that said, ‘Number of times I almost screamed at someone,’ and the first tech night I had 28 marks. I counted them. When I’m about to scream I mark the paper so I don’t scream at anybody. The second night I had 10.”
Sometimes in a town like Portland, which has a relatively small and incestuous theater community, the creative process can become delicate on a personal scale. “A lot of these actors are people I know personally,” says Dixon, echoing a dilemma many theater artists in Portland have had to navigate. “I tell people, I’m not the boss. I’m in charge, I have to make the decisions, but I’m just the driver on the bus. And the wheels on the bus don’t go ’round unless the rest of the bus is working properly.”
Luckily, no director is on his or her own. “If I don’t know an answer,” Dixon says, “I can say, ‘Hey, I don’t know. Let’s figure it out. Let’s talk it out.’ I surround myself with the best people and just remain open.” And of course, it’s always important for any director to recognize that there are other artists at work. “We’ve got Shani Harris-Bagwell and Shareen Jacobs in the cast and I’m like, ‘These are black women that you know. I’m not gonna tell you how they need to be.’ I let them take the lead and steer those characters down the path and it’s just great to watch.”
Booty Candy offers other challenges, says Dixon. “What’s interesting about this show is, it’s a nonlinear play. So each scene is compartmentalized. They’re like little tiny vignettes. But different parts of the play reach out to other parts of the play. We take these complicated topics and we give it all the gravity we can put onto a scene and then we pull the rug out from under it and we laugh at it.” That alone feels like a refreshing difference about Booty Candy. You just don’t see many Black plays in this town where people are allowed to laugh and have a good time. There are loaded topics being talked about, but it’s still fun.
And edgy. Just because they feel anybody can laugh at Booty Candy doesn’t mean that Fuse has gone soft. “James tried to shop this script to other theaters,” says Tennant, “and nobody would do it. Nobody would put their hands on it. There’s probably good reason for that. There’s full frontal nudity in it. There are discussions of rape. There are things that are just challenging. I can understand people who make their artistic choices oftentimes based on subscription and patron responses giving it a pass. I can understand that. Fuse is not necessarily in that situation. We’ve cultivated an audience. They kind of know what to expect out of us to a certain degree. Hopefully, part of that is not knowing what to expect. We are allowed to be a little more irreverent; a little more boundary-pushing.”
All the irreverence and pushing paid off. “It’s great to see people dive right into it,” says Dixon. “These are issues that we’re dealing with right now. I love the urgency of now. There’s something that we can put onstage that deals with these issues and we can just laugh for a change. There’s so much that’s going on in the world – it feels good to just sit in a room and laugh. We’ve got white folks that are getting it. That’s the other thing. Everybody gets it. It’s great to experience in real time.”
Of course, theater always exists in real time.
When I talked with Dixon and Tennant, both of them sounded weary – as to be expected – and excited. Also to be expected. They’d come a long way, had much to be excited about, and both producer and director were eager to get Booty Candy in front of an audience. Booty Candy is the centerpiece for a theatre festival that also includes:
- Ernie Lijoi’s new musical, The Pursuit of Happiness (you might remember Lijoi was responsible for the demented and depraved Under the Influence a few years back),
- A staged reading of John Marans’ The Temperamentals, directed by Roy Arauz. It’s a play that tells the story of the Mattachine Society through relationships of people who were there.
- The Tragedie of Othello by the never-afraid-to-bend-genders Original Practice Shakespeare, a company that has been part of the OUTwright Festival from jump.
- Plot Points in Our Sexual Development, by Miranda Rose Hall.
- Towards a Non-Binary Theatre and Stonewall: 50 Years Later (panel discussions).
- On Thursday, June 20, a forum for nonbinary theater artists to get together and talk about ideas and strategies on how to facilitate a healthier working relationship between that community and the mainstream theater community. The idea, Tennant says, is to “gather as many nonbinary people in the theater who have an interest in speaking about the theater and having a public discussion with the goal of having some actionable items that we can take forward into the community to better educate people in how to respond and work with the nonbinary community and trans community.”
So, there’s a lot going on for the next couple of weeks at the OUTwright Festival, a lot that will entertain, amuse, and enlighten audiences of all shapes, sizes and experiences. Booty Candy is only the headliner. As Tennant says: “Booty Candy is obviously by people of color, for people of color, but I will say that for white people coming to see a piece like Booty Candy is some of the work that we should all be doing. And it is some of the funnest work you will ever undergo.”
This same principle applies to everything at the OUTwright Festival. It may or may not be your story, but at the same time, it is. It is our story, because we are a city, a civic body. We have an investment. “We’re sharing our stories,” says Dixon, “and I hope that people can actually sit in a room and witness what’s happening here and that it translates.” We have an investment in who is telling that story. In the end, that is also for us. “Every year,” says Tennant, “it becomes more and more important to me that we are queer people telling queer stories.”
Dixon agrees: “I am standing a bit taller today. This play has never been done in this town before. I’m excited to be the first person to bring it up here. It may happen again at a larger theater company, but I’m glad it’s happening right here, at a queer theater company during Pride on the fiftieth anniversary of Stonewall. I definitely stand taller.”
And that, it would seem, is what the OUTwright Festival is all about.
- Fuse Theatre Ensemble’s OUTwright Theatre Festival continues through June 30 at the Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center, 5340 N. Interstate Ave., Portland. Ticket and schedule information here.