Around the World in a Day

Issue Nine: Criminal Queerness Festival
Azure D. Osborne-Lee
June 27, 2024
Azure D. Osborne-Lee

AZURE D. OSBORNE-LEE (he/they) is a multi-award-winning Black queer & trans theatre maker and dramatic writer from south of the Mason-Dixon Line. He currently works as a union representative and professor of drama in New York City. Keep up with his art at or support his advocacy at

“Where even am I?” I asked myself as I hustled across long block after long block of lower Manhattan towards an imposing marble cube of a building. The 6th annual Criminal Queerness Festival, produced by National Queer Theatre, is part of the inaugural season of the Perelman Arts Center in New York City in June 2024. PAC, as the building is frequently referred to, is located right across from the World Trade Center monument and is essentially inaccessible by car.

The front of PAC features a gigantic flight of stairs, although there is an elevator discreetly tucked away in an alcove next to the staircase. Once inside, the building is unlike any performing arts center I’ve ever visited. It’s reminiscent of a fancy hotel cum convention center — massive, shiny and expensive.

The Criminal Queerness Festival was staged in repertory in a small theatre on the fourth floor of the building. I saw both The Survival by Achiro P. Olwoch and She He Me by Raphaël Amahl Khouri on the same Sunday, one in the afternoon and one in the evening. Each show was presented with minimal set pieces — essentially a black box theater with some lacey white drapes on the black wall for flavor.

The Survival, featuring an unlikely love triangle, was written by Ugandan writer in exile Achiro P. Olwoch (she/her). The cultural tensions showcased in The Survival rang true, underscoring the importance of amplifying the voices of writers who have similar lived experiences to their characters. The weight of familial obligation and cultural expectation threatened to crush Achan (Janet Kilonzo), the heroine of the play. Caught between her own desires and the needs of others, she ultimately decides to break with tradition for a chance at happiness.

Although the winding melodrama featured some good-old fashioned scandal, the dialogue and acting didn’t vary much in content or tone. And though some of the behavior of the characters was shocking, there weren’t many surprises there.

I left The Survival with a couple of questions. The first was about casting. In this production, Achan’s best frenemy, Asiimwe, was played by Ash Mayers, a light-skinned actress with a loose curl pattern. I found this casting choice perplexing since the show was set in a village in Uganda with a presumably homogenous population*. I found myself asking if Asiimwe’s disloyal behavior towards her supposed best friend Achan was the result of long simmering colorism, or was that just an accident of casting. From there I began to wonder if Latiné director Nadia Guevara (she/her) was truly the best person to direct this story set on the continent. Or might there have been another director better suited to the cultural sensibilities of this particular play?

Another thing I wondered about was the use of closed captions during the play. I’m actually a big fan of closed captions in the theater. I think that theater could take a page out of opera’s book and make open captions a standard feature. The trouble here was that the monitor for the open captions was so close to the very high ceiling of the theater that patrons, even at the top of the house, could not take in the action and the text at the same time. From there I began to wonder who the captions were for. Was this an accessibility feature for all of the shows? A request from audience members? Or was the captioning done because the actors were speaking in African accents and somebody feared they wouldn’t be understood?

That evening I returned to the same theater to see She He Me by Jordanian playwright Raphaël Amahl Khouri, curious to see if there would be captions available for that show. The answer, I found, was no. Although the set (or lack thereof) was essentially the same for She He Me as it was for The Survival, there were no captions available at my performance**.

Khouri’s script is one that I’m familiar with, as it’s published in the same anthology as one of my full-length plays. Khouri has obviously updated his script for this production — questions meant to provoke the audience contained mentions of the current violence being perpetuated by the state of Israel.

She He Me is touted as the first Arab transgender play. This production, directed by Dmitri Barcomi (he/him), sparkled. The play featured three actors, playing a number of characters, with an honorary fourth — a silver pashmina. During the roughly 70-minute play, the actors and scarf transformed multiple times, helping one another tell the stories of three TGNC Arab characters.

Although many of the stories were peppered with horrific violence and tragedy, they were told with humor and sensitivity. And Barcomi’s direction of the play was inventive and clever. The acting was in turns earnest and bold. There was a talkback after the show, which I declined to attend, but it was clear that the majority of the audience was eager to discuss the work with the playwright and actors.

The Criminal Queerness Festival is the flagship programming for National Queer Theatre with good reason. Each year New York City audiences get the opportunity to see plays written by international authors about issues that matter now. The festival has had a different home theater each year. I’m hoping next year the festival will take place in a location a bit more accessible and welcoming than the PAC.


The Criminal Queerness Festival is produced by National Queer Theater and runs from June 21 – June 29 at The Perelman Performing Arts Center (PAC NYC). Learn more about the National Queer Theater here.

*While this may be the original assumption/experience of some viewers, the character referred to here is written into the script as mixed race with a white English Father and a Munyankole mother from Western Uganda. The character is based on a real woman in Uganda who is also mixed race.

**Open captions were available for one performance of each play in the Criminal Queerness Festival. Matinee performances for every show had open captions. Evening performances were not.

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