IT'S OK TO BE YOURSELF: Chinwe Akomah on Producing 'The Eternal Queers'.
The Eternal Queers is a brand new play by BCA member Estelle Chout and will be making its world premiere at the Wellington Pride Festival this year. Executive Producer and a proud BCA member Chinwe Akomah (who also developed the original concept) is looking forward to sharing this very distinctive work with Wellington audiences, and is rightfully proud that the cast and crew identify as BIPOC LGBTQI+.
BCA writer Daisy Remington spoke with Chinwe Akomah to get the inside scoop on this brand new play.
The Eternal Queers - what’s the story behind the fab title?
Written by the talented Estelle Chout, The Eternal Queers is about four groundbreaking queer icons: Carmen Rupe, Chungsheng Wu, Stormé DeLarverie and To’oto’oali’i Roger Stanley, who find each other at an extravagent celebration in the afterlife. After an unexpected confrontation they find themselves trapped together and that’s when things start to unravel!
How did you get involved in supporting Wellington Pride?
I originally just wanted to help the Pride committee find People of Colour (PoC), particularly black queer, black trans and black non-binary people who are comfortable in their describing gender and would like to put on an event. In the past, Wellington Pride (like other Prides) have been quite cis, quite white, quite male. The pride committee, many who are PoC like myself, wanted to ensure inclusion and representation of our beautiful BIPOC LGBTQI+ communities - and ensure they had space to celebrate their identities at Pride.
However, the reality is that when we started reaching out, it was hard to find BIPOC people, especially in the black community. I feel there’s a lot of cultural stigma against anything that's not heterosexual and that’s when it dawned on us that this was going to be a huge undertaking, if not impossible. Finding someone in Wellington who was comfortable; who was out, BIPOC, and wanted to run events may just be too big a checklist at this moment in time. Having intimate knowledge of the barriers faced I knew I had to step in and start.
What inspired you to do a play?
I was really inspired by Michelle Mascoll at Same Same But Black who did ICONS2021, a celebration of so many remarkable queer icons for Auckland Pride. I'm not sure why I chose a play though, I've never done a play in my life. I enjoy making earrings and I do some advocacy but I’ve never delved into this realm. I often find that I can be quite ambitious without always thinking things through and don't realize what I'm getting into until it's too late. I think that's what happened here - oh I know, I’ll do a play.
I was also inspired by the fact that throughout the BLM movement there was a lack of recognition of all the BIPOC activists who have been fighting alongside and spearheading movements. People like Stormé DeLarveries and Marsha P Johnson and so many trans women were on the frontlines but are simply whitewashed over. I hate that these people are not celebrated; that young queer people are growing up and dont even know their history; many dont even know about movements outside the US or our own countries.
This is your first time producing a play, what has the process been like for you?
It has been a massive learning curve, maybe even the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. There have been so many challenges. I have been learning as I go, getting as much feedback and advice as possible, and relying on people for support and ideas. Dione, who is a dramaturg and director, helped in sharing the fundamentals of what's involved in putting a play together and connected me to Estelle Chout who wrote this incredible script. I also have Krishna Istha, our director who is amazing and leading our cast through a rich rehearsal process. I also had to learn to let things go and allow my team to excel in their areas of expertise. This let me focus on the behind the scenes stuff like funding, venue, ticketing.
I have also been learning a lot about myself. I have found areas where I need to grow, learn, and adjust. I’m learning how to juggle paid work with play work, how to get outside support from sponsors, how to write proposals, and understanding all parts of the job description. I am also learning how to communicate in different more effective ways. I think the biggest thing I have learned is to not try and do a play in three months, especially one that's starting from scratch!
This has been a challenge, what would you say was the biggest hurdle?
We wanted our entire cast and crew to come from the BIPOC rainbow community. Specifically trans, queer, and nonbinary. We feel it is very important that we get to tell our own stories. I spent a lot of time putting out calls for cast and crew. When it came to the characters accurate casting was key, and that meant casting trans for trans roles or non-binary for non-binary roles, and of course they have to be of that heritage. Because of that, all my casting calls were very explicit.
Yet, I still got contacted by cis white people. It is so frustrating that some white people think every space is for them and can actually selectively read only the words that appeal to them while dismissing things that don't. I had to go back to them and say we are committed to casting to represent heritage and culture accurately but please do come and see the play. Ultimately, we found people through word of mouth, although we had to make some adjustments.
Our original idea was to have Marsha P. Johnson and Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, an Indian trans activist, as characters in the play. When we couldn't find the right fit for them, we changed Marsha to the remarkable Stormé and we changed Laxmi to a Fa’afine activist. Including a Fa’afine activist was appropriate; they are such strong leaders and challenge a lot of BIPOC communities by showing that faith and sexuality can coexist.
What was the best part about doing this play?
Being able to hold a space for BIPOC LGBTQI+ people is so special to me. Knowing that the young members of these communities will be able to come to this play and see themselves and know they can. We are able to show that LGBTQI+ represent all countries, cultures, genders, and sexuality. Being able to show this as well as being able to share and celebrate the stories, for and by BIPOC LGBTQI+, that have been erased or overlooked makes me feel so proud.
I can't wait to see Wellington Pride next year continue to grow in inclusivity and representation.
All these characters have been inspirational, who is one of your role models?
I am not sure that I really have a ‘role model’ but there are a couple of black women whom I look up to, Issa Rae for example. When she was asked on an awards show who she was cheering for and she said ‘Everyone black and trans’. I was like YES, short, sweet, and to the point! She said it without flinching, no hesitation, and that was it. I also love the way she wears her culture and her race. She has such inner strength, natural beauty and grace.
Is there anything else you would like to tell folks?
First, I would like to say that all the money we make from the ticket sales go back to the cast and crew. No matter what background, age, sexuality or gender, everyone is welcome to come and support. I think this is especially important for cis white people to learn about the BIPOC who have positively impacted their freedom. Come and see the play, come listen and learn.
I would also like to ask my black whānua, particularly in Wellington, to come and support. It would mean a lot to have our community turn up. Given the stigma within our culture it can feel like rejection. We, all of us black queer trans nonbinar people, are an active part of both the black community and the rainbow community. Black community support for the play would mean a great deal to our team and we would love to see you there!
Finally, what do you love most about being a black creative in Aotearoa?
I still grapple with being a black creative. Being a black creative in Aotearoa is being able to tell stories through art and being able to just be me. Right now I feel like a person who is learning on the hop, but while there are still challenges, I can still be me in New Zealand and I know things would be different if I lived in Nigeria.
I want to help show that it is okay to be who you are.