With fear in his eyes and sweat dripping down his face, Sirus, a freed slave, scurried around a large tree, trying to hide from a lynch-mob that knew about his secret relationship with a British man. In spite of his attempt to camouflage himself, Sirus was found and hung from that same tree in Central Park.
After his death, the scene jumps to modern day New York where a lesbian woman named Mike, played by Ava Jenkins, finds herself in the same situation. A group of rowdy men are chasing her through Central Park because they perceive her to be gay based on her appearance. While in hiding, Mike is greeted by the spirit of Sirus, played by Howard University alum Tyree Young. Though seemingly coincidental, their chance meeting was actually intentional.
Motivated by the unsettling language of the 13th Amendment, writer Karimah and Tony-award winning director George Faison constructed “Accept ‘Except’ LGBT NY,” which addresses injustice against African Americans and the LGBT community.
Cultural Arts and Diversity (CAD) along with Colleges Nine and Ten brought “Accept ‘Except’ LGBT NY” to UC Santa Cruz this month for a night of entertainment and empowerment. CAD Director Don Williams saw the play at the National Black Theatre Festival last year and felt it necessary to present it to UCSC students. His goal was to open a dialogue about injustices related to race and sexuality and how the struggles of these two groups are intertwined.
Before the show began Williams addressed the audience, urging them to absorb the messages conveyed in the play.
“As you watch the show, I ask you to open your hearts and open your minds to what is being said in this play,” Williams said before asking the audience members to close their eyes.
The play shifted between Sirus and Mike’s monologues in the beginning, leading up to their encounter. But as the show progressed, viewers saw the connection Karimah had subtly developed between the two. After much pressure from Sirus to open up, Mike shared her life story with him.
While red and blue lights danced across her face, she recalled a physical altercation with her former boss that led to her incarceration. While Sirus’s eyes were fixed on Mike, Sirus listened attentively and realized their connection. However, in light of their metaphorical resemblance, Mike denies any connection between Sirus’ enslavement and her incarceration by repeating, “Nobody owns me! I’m only a slave when I’m at work.”
This play covers topics like racism and homophobia, and through dialogue addresses its primary motivation — the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery in 1865. However, “Accept ‘Except’ LGBT NY” redefines it as the amendment that birthed the prison-industrial complex, where involuntary servitude is permissible in the prison system.
Though these are the main issues highlighted in “Accept ‘Except’ LGBT NY,” parts of the play resonated differently with some audience members. Third-year transfer student Ana Mendoza was struck by a scene when Sirus tells Mike of how he became a free man after acquiring his “freedom papers.” The idea of carrying around a piece of paper that gives you the right to live freely made Mendoza reflect on her own experiences in obtaining citizenship.
“I didn’t have a choice but my parents brought me here undocumented and that paper — to some people — gives them the right to be a human, the right to be considered for some rights,” Mendoza said.
Although entertaining, Williams, as well as the cast of “Accept ‘Except’ LGBT NY,” feel that the most important takeaway from the play is about equality amongst all groups of people and our ability to openly critique systemic oppression. A play led by two characters was just enough to acknowledge the haunting existence of 21st century slavery in what is supposed to be a post-colonial era. Karimah’s stage show is educational and forces viewers to confront these problems and work toward making a change.
Lead actress Ava Jenkins believes this play is important for people to spark meaningful conversation about changing the social and political conditions of American society.
“In order to see any kind of change, we need to educate ourselves first,” she said.