Talking to Ricardo Gamboa and Sean Parris mere hours after Orlando felt uncanny. The couple, well-known in Chicago's theater scene, have co-written a play, Space Age, about growing up as queer kids of color, and clearly the crime committed against Black and Brown LGBTQ people haunted Gamboa as he spoke.
"I think one of the questions we were wrestling with is why would anyone need to see this play, why do we need to do it," reflected Gamboa. "And it's so weird because when you think about the events that happened last night...When I was just a closeted repressed mid-20s person I would get drunk and drive to the gay clubs hammered, the only time that I ever gave myself permission to go to a gay club. Because of the places where I grew up, I didn't perceive that possibility to actually be open and out. One of those times I got totally pulled over, arrested for DUI. I think about so much of the ways in which the circumstances underpinning our biographies are about being at the intersection of a person of color and also a queer person."
Gamboa and Parris' play has its roots in their modern love story and the pop-culture references of their childhood. The pair met over Facebook Messenger. "We were friends, but not really friends, we didn't really know each other," Parris remembered. "We started talking about the things that we related to as children. And in 1994, we both saw a movie called "I Like it Like That." I never met anybody on this planet who had seen that movie."
"The show goes over the first 48 hours of our relationship, and then at the same time, it's kind of us navigating our childhoods, growing up in these places and trying to figure out how to be queer where there weren't really models for it," said Gamboa.
Implicit in the Free Street Theater production is the desire to show a different narrative than the usual gay love or coming of age story. "One of the things we realized is that we weren't necessarily seeing our experiences represented out there," Parris said.
"So much of the theater by queer people of color and queer people is tragic theater," said Gamboa. "It's like the confessional mode of 'here's how I'm oppressed', or this type of gay liberation narrative. Or gay frivolity, like the gay couple in the condo going through some type of issue. And I think one of the things that we were thinking a lot about was how do we create something that doesn't apply to both of those things. I was really invested in how we found hope and love and resilience, and how could we make a play that's about a politics of hope for queer and racialized people."
This goal is vital to Gamboa. "That narrative that gay people are a moral hazard and a sinful bunch is what makes it possible for a man to walk in and shoot 50 of them with an assault rifle," he said. "I think we're alive at a time where being queerit's this weird dichotomy where being queer is more embraced than ever in the mainstream, like Orange Is the New Black, RuPaul's Drag Raceand at the same time, there's still an immense amount of violence that all queer people go through, particularly poor queer youth of color."
The couple hope to welcome audiences that might not feel comfortable with other theater productions. "I would love to get people who feel alienated," said Parris. "Like, I don't want to speak for every theater but there's a certain kind of snobbiness that comes with going to the theater, there's a certain kind of etiquette, and it's complicated, but I think what happens with that etiquette is that you end up alienating a lot of people."
The production plans on doing outreach to queer youth, and Parris and Gamboa welcome critique of what they present. "There's a fear, but also a 'bring it on' kind of thing too," said Parris. "But I'm curious at the conversation afterwards. I actually want to there to be a conversation about who gets to tell stories and why do they get to tell stories."
"We're trying to do honest storytelling," said Gamboa. "We're trying to make sure that we are composing this stuff not based on the reaction that we want, but on the reaction that it can make possible and the actions that it might incite."
Gamboa said he thinks that white gays and lesbians can not only identify and think critically about Space Age, but that the audience can be challenged to think about how theater is produced.
"I think it's actually really thinking about who gets to tell stories, what stories get celebrated, and how did that system, that let certain people rise and be seen, come into play?" Gamboa said. "The average theatergoer can do a lot in terms of challenging those power dynamics, and a lot of it is rethinking about what constitutes good work. Who articulates all of those standards and metrics of measurement [and] artistic legitimacy?"
While the artists' reputation could have landed the play anywhere, Space Age's home at Free Street is a deliberate choice. "If the play's about two boys finding ways to survive outside the institution, the mainframe, we're definitely going to try and lace that into the production ideology," said Gamboa.
The couple loved both getting in touch with aspects of their childhoodboth mentioned putting on high heels and realizing how much more natural that act was when they were kidsand working together. Gamboa said he'd always hoped to collaborate with a romantic partner.
"Our living-room wall looks like a serial killer's wall," joked Gamboa. "We've been mapping out this show. We have these long days, we go work out together, we come up and pick up the house and eat together and then we create together until we have to go to bed."
"I think every person that's in a relationship should try and create something together, because in the end what it does is it really forces you to articulate," said Parris. "So if you're having a problem, you have to articulate. We're not going to abandon this; we want to deepen this. It forces us to go in there and duke it out and love each other again. And make room for each other."
Space Age is running July 18 and 25, and Aug. 1 at 7 p.m. at Free Street Theater, 1419 W. Blackhawk St., third Floor. Tickets are pay-what-you-can: more info at freestreet.org .