Costumes, Character, and Criminality

Issue Nine: Criminal Queerness Festival
Billy McEntee
June 27, 2024
Billy McEntee

Billy McEntee is a freelance writer, artist, and Theater Editor at the Brooklyn Rail. He was the inaugural Terry Helbing Fellow for the American Theatre Critics Association and teaches with The School of the New York Times. X: @wjmcentee

I have a friend who says you can tell if partners are meant for each other if they feel like they’re “drawn from the same cartoon.”

Maybe the lovers share a goofiness that would play out in the plot of a graphic novel. They might have a similar penchant for birdwatching. Or perhaps they, in social media parlance, match each other’s freak.

Sartorial choices also come into play; clothing, and cartoons, are highly visual, after all. And sometimes, those who don’t quite dress alike are nonetheless destined for one another. I was thinking of my friend’s mantra while watching Ethan (Tyler Bey) and Oyat (R. Jahan) in Achiro P. Olwoch’s play The Survival, running at PAC NYC through June 27. The play is one of three in the Criminal Queerness Festival (CQT), a vital effort from National Queer Theater bringing artists whose gender identity and/or sexuality are punishable in their home countries to New York stages.

Boyfriends Ethan and Oyat don’t seem meant to be, not only because Uganda represses its LGBTQ+ population but because Jason A. Goodwin’s costumes have communicated their differences. Subtle but wise, Goodwin’s costumes are the strongest design element, beside PAC NYC’s unstoppable air conditioning, in the play.

Ethan wears jeans and black converse. Oyat sports khakis and brown dress shoes. Something doesn’t quite gel, even if we can argue whether black and brown can match.

It’s not just their clothes that telegraph their distinctions, which may be socioeconomic but are certainly political. Oyat wants to have a baby to live out a heteronormative lifestyle; he accomplishes this by courting a hopeful young woman, Achan (Janet Kilonzo). They have sex, she gets pregnant, and Oyat wants the child but has no desire to marry, despite the shame it will bring her.

“They will parade me around and proclaim me a prostitute,” Achan says, revealing the gravity of disgraced women’s status in the country.

Ethan is disgusted — and yet, in Uganda, his partner has few options to realize something resembling the nuclear family. The theme of family, and its evolving definition in countries where queerness is criminalized, runs deep in Olwoch’s play, directed by Nadia Guevara. Achan’s married friend Asiimwe upholds societal standards of femininity: “I only do what a good wife’s supposed to do” is one of her first, and telling, lines. Her costumes nod to this status. Cinched at the waist by a belt, her hourglass silhouette reads more “feminine” — and restricted — than her friend’s; Achan, a painter, wears a sleeveless top and wide-legged pants.

Achan inherits a strong fashion sense from her mother: donning thick wedges and a flashy, bright orange patterned matching pants and top, Mother (Jha’Nal Blue) has prominent orb-like earrings, round as the world she tries to control. Imperious and scheming, Mother wants the best for her daughter — an “abomination” — even if that means perpetuating homophobic norms to teach her daughter a lesson. Grandmother (Kkuumba Siegell) provides a more soothing maternal presence, and, dressed in royal purple, Goodwin again uses color to highlight differing personalities. (Say what you will about brown and black, purple and orange are surely a fashion no-no.)

At one point toward the end of the play, Achan arrives on stage barefoot. Punished for being pregnant but unwed, she is stripped of the article of clothing that perhaps most connotes our humanity: our shoes.

It’s an impactful directorial choice, a shining one in a production that does not treat its violence egregiously but does linger for a few too many perfunctory scenes. The Survival is structured with bite-sized scenes usually featuring two actors butting heads on contemporary Ugandan politics related to gender and sexuality — repeated over and over, the rhythm becomes monotonous and the form untheatrical. When Achan breaks this cadence, arriving barefoot and addressing the audience directly, a new energy emerges, hinting that a more dynamic play could take shape.

The second play in CQT’s lineup is similarly flat in its structure. Whereas The Survival is a straightforward narrative piece, Raphaël Amahl Khour’s She He Me — which closed on June 23 — is docu-theater, bringing together the voices of three trans and queer activists from Algeria, Georgia, and Lebanon as performed by Shaan Dasani, Amaal Saifudeen, and Louis Sallan.

In Dmitri Barcomi’s production, the three actors sit at stools while cycling through monologues. As with The Survival, She He Me, falls into a repetitive pattern, an innate challenge of docu-theater. Khour enlivens the form by having each performer’s costars embody characters — doctors, parents, siblings — in their monologues. It casts a mild spell, but once it becomes the rule it goes unbroken and, as such, unexciting.

Goodwin’s costumes — simple, effective, and accomplishing richer storytelling than both plays allow — provide more to chew on. She He Me and The Survival are gently staged and feature minimal sets; this helps Goodwin’s more realized costumes pop and provide stimulation when both runtimes could use some tightening.

Sharing a trans woman’s story, Saifudeen appears in a long navy skirt with a hint of a sheen. A gray sweater, French tucked into the skirt’s front, further asserts the character’s contemporary and assured identity, at odds with the politics of the officers who imprison her and place her in a men’s cell. Sallan’s character makes great use of a silvery, shimmery shawl. In an exuberant performance, Sallan bucks traditional expectations of masculinity and transforms his shawl from traditional head scarf into runway prop.

Dasani’s trans-masc character’s clothing may look more subdued, but look to the feet. Traveling to the United States for gender affirmation surgery, his character is costumed in neat, sturdy sandals — mahogany with two wide, criss-crossing bands so handsome even Carrie Bradshaw would pay a compliment.

In The Survival, Dasani’s character is traveling towards his fullness; in She He Me, Achan just wants to be seen for hers. Details of shoewear extend beyond these two shows, conspicuous to anyone stepping (or strutting) into PAC NYC during Pride Month. Met Gala attendees should take note and may drool at the pumps, heels, and — yes — Dr. Martens filling the venue’s theaters; between a queer festival and Cats: The Jellicle Ball (also purring playing now at PAC NYC), fashionable audiences are coming to see and be seen. At all performances, queerness, and all its forms of expression, are celebrated. And what confident journey begins with unconfident shoes?


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.

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