The 1980s in New York were complicated years. The city was on edge with an increase in crime, drugs, and poverty, and the AIDS epidemic was beginning to take its devastating toll. At the same time, artists living in New York say that a creative boom, propelled by struggle and adversity, took place.
It was an electric time to be queer in New York, with the rise of a new culture and a thriving Ballroom scene—as depicted in Jennie Livingston’s iconic documentary, Paris is Burning. New York playwright Pia Scala-Zankel was a teenager in the 1980s; she wasn’t part of the LGBTQ community that would congregate on the Lower Hudson piers, but she’d often walk past and admire them. She was drawn to them. Now, 30 years later, she brings their story to the stage.
Her play, Street Children, which opened December 2 at the New Ohio Theatre in the Village, explores the repression, romantic idealism, and high cost of living experienced by the transgender and queer community during this time. At the core of the production are three intertwined characters dealing with the cold-blooded murder of their street mother.
“It felt like a very visceral and energized time. There was heightened danger and oppression,” recalls Scala-Zankel. “I was always very interested in this community because I felt like out of all of that, and when the stakes were so high, they created this beautiful other world where they found their family.”
For a long time, Scala-Zankel questioned whether she had the right, as an outsider, to tell these stories. “There were a lot of things and a lot of work that I had to do to allow myself to tell it, and to feel okay about it,” she says. “Because I can’t appropriate their story, I’ll never be able to.”
Part of bridging this gap was casting the play appropriately. With director Jenna Worsham, she assembled a diverse cast of actors—looking for guidance from people like Brad Calcaterra, who teaches Act Out at the LGBT Center. Of the 15 actors who make up the cast of Street Children, 11 of those identify as LGBTQ, transgender, or gender fluid.
“That’s an incredibly diverse room. That’s a room where everybody has something to offer,” says Worsham. “I’m a gay woman from the South and there’s a lot I know about what it is to be gay in America, but I will never be a woman of trans experience. I have to be willing to say: ‘I don’t know. Will you help me?’”
Cece Suazo, a self-described “Street Child” from the 1980s, and a member of the cast of Street Children, has been there to help. Suazo has been invaluable to the play’s development, with her real-life experiences yielding insight to educate the rest of the cast and creative team.
“It’s like taking them into a time warp. You’re taking them way, way back and making them sense—feel, taste, touch—the era,” says Suazo. “Having lived that era, having been a street kid of the ’80s and experienced all of it, it is truly an honor for those experiences to be valued.”
For Suazo, performing in Street Children has also been a challenge. “This has been an emotional rollercoaster for me,” she says. “[Many of] my brothers and sisters from that era aren’t here anymore. Luck was in my way, a lucky card was presented to me—a get-out-of-jail-card—for me to tell this story.”
Rehearsing and performing Street Children in the wake of the presidential election has been emotionally challenging for the entire cast. “It’s interesting how history is repeating itself, or it feels like it is, when we’re in the middle of [doing] this play,” says Eve Lindley, one of the principal cast members. Many people in the LGBTQ community have been vocal about how the shift in power could impact their rights and safety.
“There has been a lot of change, I’m not belittling the strides we’ve made…but truthfully, not a whole lot feels that different as I’m stepping into this world,” continues Lindley.
“It was in a similar time in our country politically where a lot was at stake for the LGBTQ community,” adds Worsham. “We’re able to shed light on what’s happening today not only by showing how far we’ve come, but how far we haven’t come. There’s still a lot of work to do, and limited resources. Plays like this … get to be a platform of visibility to a still very marginalized community.” The show highlights current homelessness and violence towards the transgender community.
For both Worsham and Scala-Zankel, the political upset has been a driving force during Street Children’s development. “I feel like this is the time,” says the playwright. “Art is the saving grace in a time where there is all this uncertainty swirling around.”
“We felt lost but we weren’t immobilized by it,” agrees Worsham. “As artists we’re responsible to have a conversation, not to run away.” For Worsham, the play is also an ideal opportunity to give visibility to a talented group of trans and gender fluid actors.
“I want to live in a world where an actor of trans experience is not just considered for trans stories,” says the director. “We, as people in positions of power, need to shift the way we think…it’s about hiring people. They’re out there and they need to be given opportunities.”
Lindley, who has worked with Worsham in both cis and gender fluid roles, is grateful for the play on a more personal level. “I didn’t know how much of myself I would find in this story,” says Lindley. “It’s a story about family. It’s a story about loss and love, and the right to be fabulous in the face of adversity. It sounds funny but it’s actually a life-changing and life-saving thing, whether you’re on the spectrum or off.” In other words, it’s a play for everyone, and more important now than ever.
Street Children is playing at the New Ohio Theatre through December 17. For more information and to purchase tickets visit VertigoTheater.org.
Olivia Clement is a news and features writer at Playbill. Follow her on Twitter here.