No Exceptions

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Illustration by Owen Thomas
Illustration by Owen Thomas

Just when Americans thought the country had rid itself of involuntary servitude, the prison-industrial complex was born.

Since colonial slavery was abolished in 1865, many people are still unaware that language in the U.S. Constitution’s 13th Amendment allows slavery to continue. The Amendment declares that slavery is not permitted in the United States or any other U.S. territory, “except as a punishment for a crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”

This overlooked detail was writer Karimah and Tony Award-winning director George Faison’s inspiration for presenting “Accept ‘Except’ LGBT NY” a play coming to UC Santa Cruz mid-February, which challenges the nature of this amendment and the false implications behind it. This concept is acted out through the perspectives of two slaves — one from the plantation and the other from the modern prison-industrial complex.

“Anytime you look at somebody who is in prison today, anytime you look at somebody who has received any kind of prison sentence, that is like de facto enslavement,” said actor Tyree Young who plays Sirus, a freed slave who lived and died in the 1800s and whose lover was exiled from England for being homosexual.

Through her writing, Karimah addresses Tyree’s sentiment and accentuates how African Americans and people who identify as queer experience mistreatment and alienation in society. “Accept ‘Except’ LGBT NY” records these journeys and acknowledges the dependency that grows between individuals who have fallen victim to oppression.

After his exile, Sirus is betrayed by a fellow slave who reveals his relationship with the Englishman. As a result he’s chased through Central Park and lynched. Fast forward to present day, the audience finds Mike, a lesbian woman in a similar situation, being chased by people who suspect her homosexuality. She hides behind a tree and is greeted by Sirus’ spirit.

Young was introduced to the play after working with Faison on a production at his alma mater, Howard University. While developing the play, Faison asked Young to audition for a role and later cast him. Young’s interest in the play’s relevance and engagement in social issues like LGBT rights and injustice within the African American community made accepting the role a no-brainer.

“[The play] touches on so much,” Young said. “It touches on the school to prison pipeline, on the politics of gender identity about the differences and what is expected of women during Sirus’ time versus the suffrage of women and misogyny, against black women particularly. It touches on a lot of things but it doesn’t hit you over the head with it and it’s not preachy.”

Young empathizes with the issues presented in the play, and finds it rewarding when an audience member also develops a connection with the story and message. Kathryn Douglas, a UCSC student, saw the play in North Carolina at the National Black Theater Festival and shared her appreciation for the show.

“I actually thought the play portrayed a different side of a story we hear most often,” Douglas said. “The playwright does an excellent job of drawing a connection between the LGBT community and slavery. We don’t really acknowledge homosexuality during slavery — drawing a connection to modern day where it is still hard to be black but it is also twice as hard to be black and queer.”

Don Williams, the director of Cultural Arts and Diversity, also had a chance to check out the play during its debut at the National Black Theater Festival and admires it for its presentation of multiple perspectives on injustice. This admiration led to his decision to bring “Accept ‘Except’ LGBT NY” to UCSC next month.

“I liked the storyline of them going back into the early 1800s,” Williams said. “With an African black male who found himself in love with a white male, and then set in 2014 with an African American girl running from this huge mob, chasing her because she’s gay. It is empowering.”

By bridging the gap between the plantation era and modern day gay rights, Karimah and Faison introduce a new way of thinking about society’s issue with accepting certain sexual and racial identities. With racism, sexism and homophobia as lingering problems in today’s society, “Accept ‘Except’ LGBT NY” offers a perspective on these issues — a point of view that is often overlooked.

“It’s amazing to see how far we think we’ve come, when in reality, we’re in this very odd place of having tension and not allowing people to be who they are. That is the core message of this play,” Young said. “Whatever you are, whatever your racial identity, sexual identity, gender identity — it is most important that people are allowed to be who they are and to be what they need to be in this world.”

“Accept ‘Except’ LGBT NY” show stars Tyree Young and Ava Jenkins, and will be held on Feb. 10 at 7 p.m. in the College Nine and Ten Multipurpose Room.