Last weekend’s Queer Rebels of the Harlem Renaissance was nothing less than fabulous, of course. And what was really exciting was that we didn’t have to do as I expected, traveling back in time to celebrate the vibrancy of the Harlem Renaissance. The lives and legacies of folks including Gladys Bentley and Langston Hughes came to the stage through artists of today, like Kirya Traber and Earl Thomas. The sense I got as the audience flooded the space with cheers at the end of the night was that the applause from the Harlem Renaissance never ended. At some point, that period of history may have been over, with the Great Depression bringing the lively Jazz Age to a close, but those who created the art, literature and music of the time left a drumming in our hearts that hasn’t stopped beating.
It was very uplifting, to witness people whose struggles go back for centuries rising up with pride. But my question today is about the moment that occurred before the show began. When Celeste Chan and KB Boyce, the show’s delightful directors, appeared onstage, they offered some of the usual pre-show chatter – a warm welcome, hearty thanks for our presence, a request to please silence our cell phones. Then, they added something not quite so common – a gentle reminder that the subject matter of the show can bring with it stories of oppression, violence and trauma. They informed us that counselors from San Francisco Women Against Rape were in the audience, and briefly turned the house lights on so the counselors could identify themselves in case we needed to check in with them after the show.
I really appreciated this moment. I appreciate anyone who can pause to recognize the potential impact of their words on violent subject matter, especially when they also take the time to offer some healing directly afterward.
Still, it brings up my question – why does our joy have to come with a trigger warning?
After an event that’s simultaneously so powerful, joyful, and heart-wrenching, I’m thinking again about the possibility of simply letting go and having fun. Has suffering played such a substantial role in the histories of queer people of color that we can’t celebrate our histories without being reminded of our anguish?
I think it’s true, that in order to share our whole stories we must hold both the joy and the pain. Queer Rebels of the Harlem Renaissance reminded me, however, that I don’t believe this is a bad thing. If anything, reflecting on our histories in this way can help us relearn how to be our whole selves, without shame or regret. We look back and laugh, though we may at times have tears in our eyes, not lamenting our struggles but rejoicing in our triumphs over trouble.
This is truth telling in its truest form. Big thanks to everyone involved in Queer Rebels of the Harlem Renaissance. Thanks for your truth, your heart, your spirit. I can’t wait for the show’s return next year.