More than 100 people filled the Black Box Theater in Bradley Hall on Thursday, Oct. 24, for the staged reading of She Like Girls. Presented by the Yendor Theater Company and the Queer Newark Oral History Project (QNOHP), the play centers around the life of Sakia Gunn, a lesbian teenager murdered because of her sexuality. Andrew Binger directed the play, and award-winning playwright Chisa Hutchinson wrote it.
The play came to Rutgers-Newark after Christina Strasburger, administrator of the Department of African American and African Studies and Department of History, viewed the staged reading at the Newark Public Library. Strasburger is also the co-founder and co-director of QNOHP, an organization created in 2011 that records interviews with LGBTQ Newarkers about their lives while making their stories accessible to academic and community-based researchers, students, and artists.
“Sakia Gunn is mentioned often in our interviews,” says Strasburger. “Her murder galvanized the Newark community and motivated the founding of the Newark LGBTQ Community Center. The play focuses on her life, rather than on her tragic death, and I saw it as a really moving piece of work that would resonate with the community.”
Strasburger correctly assessed the appetite of the Rutgers-Newark community. She Like Girls received positive responses from those who saw the Black Box Theater presentation.
Hutchinson, a Newark native, conceived of the piece She Like Girls after learning about Gunn’s death.
“I thought it would be a good idea to honor her short stay on Earth by writing a play about her—speculating what life might have been for her growing up in a city where it wasn’t cool to be gay and where you were often the target of violence and hate,” says Hutchinson. “Rather than focusing on just her death, I tried to focus on her life and the light that she likely brought and found when she discovered her first girlfriend. I wanted to normalize that as much as possible.”
As a member of the LGBTQ community, Hutchinson admits she shares similar experiences with the characters in her play, such as growing up in a society that constantly reminds her that her sexuality is something to be ashamed of.
“I am bisexual,” says Hutchinson. “For me, it was a little easier because I was interested in guys. It really must be hard for those who can't pass as straight and who just feel that everything about them is wrong. I can't even imagine.”
Despite struggling with other’s divergent opinions, one of Hutchinson’s proudest moments occurred when her conservative mother acknowledged her play and the success it had in making a difference in people’s lives.
“My mom, who was a good Christian woman, came to see the play very reluctantly,” says Hutchinson. “She finally showed up and was so tense throughout the whole thing—particularly the part where the girls were kissing on stage. At the end of the play, when there was a standing ovation, she stayed seated and clapped politely. All she could say about the play was, ‘Where do you come up with this stuff?’ I was heartbroken. Then a tiny miracle happened. A week or so later, she called me and left a voicemail message saying, ‘Hey Chisa, I didn't get the chance to talk to you after your play, but I got the chance to read the little note from the playbill. I didn’t know anything about the girl who had gotten killed. I just wanted you to know that I am so proud of you, and I want you to keep doing what you're doing.’”
Hutchinson believes that if she could impact others in a way similar to her mother, she also could help to change the perception of those who see the LGBTQ community as “different.”
“I still have the voicemail because it means so much to me,” says Hutchinson, who acknowledged that her mother has since passed away. “It's such a good reminder to keep going, and that what I do can matter. I consider that the bar. If I can get every play to have the audience respond like that, I’m good. If I try hard enough to impact people with words and a story, it can really get through.”
For aspiring playwrights, Hutchinson believes they should make their presence known.
“I think the most important advice is to be in the room,” says Hutchinson. “It's a collaborative art. You really have to go to the theaters where you want to see your work produced. Get the feeling of what kind of work is being produced there. Forge a connection with the people you want to work with.”