A lone spotlight hits the stage. Into it steps Frank Washington, 31. After a pause so long it's maddening, he begins to speak – undoubtedly – from a place of personal truth. "It's hard to love a man that continually berates you, calls you fag, sissy, punk, queer ... but we do." Some audience members shift in their seats, while others lean in, hanging on Washington's every word. "We fight for you, yet you refuse to acknowledge your black brothers who are gay, bi, trans, or ... rather, non-straight. Beautiful. Black. Men. We're just like you ...." This piece, titled Their Own Receive Them Not, is one small slice of a larger performance by the Mahogany Project, Austin's most prolific black queer men's theatre collective. Unrestrained and unapologetic, Washington and others from a long-silenced community are taking the stage to speak their piece.
As with most thought-provoking live performance works, the Mahogany Project's stage show defies easy categorization. A charged combination of poetry, prose, and ensemble pieces, the Project's annual productions (or "volumes," as they're called) can perhaps best be defined as the intimate – sometimes erratic – onstage manifestation of a historically marginalized group's innermost feelings and frustrations. In addition to creating a communal safe space for its members, the Project exists as a platform to educate audiences in the many nuances associated with living as a queer person of color. "Many people have an idea of what 'black and gay' is, but they don't have the true essence of it," says London Pe'Rez, 29, a five-year veteran of the Project, and the group's sole trans member. "Our show is proof that 'black and gay' is an umbrella, encompassing many different shapes, sizes, and personalities."
Penned by the performers, the Project's pieces draw inspiration from interviews conducted within the community, conversations between friends, and, most commonly, personal experiences. The subjects they've touched on over the years include love, sex, gender, homophobia, racism, objectification, and intersectionality, to name a few.
Though the Project was officially founded in 2012 by creative partners Joe Anderson Jr., 31, and Will Lyons, 33, its roots can be traced back to 2011, when the duo began hosting weekly gatherings for queer men of color at their small North Austin apartments. Dubbed the "Sweet-Tea Discussions," these casual hangouts filled a crucial gap in Austin's queer community. "We wanted a safe space, to be honest," reflects Lyons, "to discuss all things dating, relationships, sex, and coming out."
For Anderson, these discussions made apparent just how restricted black queer voices were within society at large. "We realized how wide a range of experiences we all lived, but the media only portrayed us as the effeminate friend or the thug. You never saw two black men in a relationship, the friendships, the dating, or the intersections of being black in a queer space, or queer in a black space. We needed to humanize those occasions."
Since then, the Mahogany Project has grown into a close-knit collective of 10 area creatives who make up one of Austin's most unabashedly candid LGBTQ voices. Each year, the group returns to the Dougherty Arts Center stage to kick off Austin Pride week. It's here that the Project unveils the latest volume in its continuing series. Each volume features fresh material loosely tied together by an overarching concept. Past volumes have focused on such themes as body image, revolution, and dynasty. "Each volume's writing process begins with solidifying the big picture," says Anderson. "'What do we want the audience to take from this? What point are we trying to make?' From there, we build our show." Come Aug. 3, the Project will unveil its latest volume: Joy.
As anyone who's patronized a Mahogany Project show is aware, a volume dedicated to joy is cause for celebration in itself. Reflecting the experiences lived by the men onstage, the content of a Mahogany Project show isn't always lighthearted or easy to digest. It's not uncommon for audiences to experience pieces about suicide, HIV/AIDS, and police brutality, all in an hour. "Joy as a show will be a departure," Anderson says. "With past shows, we've gone from heavy piece to heavy piece, because it happens. People in our community deal with hardships back to back. There are no breaks."
If the truths Mahogany Project speaks can be tough for audiences to hear, the strength required to relive them is herculean. "Performing in the Mahogany Project is like ripping off a scab every single time you perform," says Anderson. "Each performance means experiencing those same emotions you went through when you got cut. You relive that trauma in order to save someone else's life." Anderson isn't alone in feeling this responsibility. Pe'Rez reveals, "I've had plenty of times where I'd think, 'I can't do this anymore. I'm tired of making myself vulnerable.' But you have to because you never know who it may benefit."
While being in the Mahogany Project is an emotionally draining gig, there is validation to be found in the healing dialogues opened with each performance. In keeping with the Project's goal of education, each volume closes with a talkback, where audience members of all backgrounds can ask questions, express opinions, or simply show their appreciation. "I'll always remember the woman who came to our show looking for guidance after her son told her he wanted to transition," says Pe'Rez. "Being able to explain to her the correct practices, the correct skills, who to reach out to for help – just how to be a supportive family member – was indescribable."
Though the general reaction to the Project's work has been positive, that's not to say its willingness to foster dialogue hasn't attracted controversy. "There was a time an audience member asked us how we felt about going to hell," recalls Anderson. "For me, that was an opportunity to open a discussion about the privilege that comes with even asking a question like that – with feeling like you can ask another person how they feel about going to hell and see nothing wrong with that. For Frank, it was also an opportunity to discuss his own relationship with religion, how he and many other queer folks also go to church and believe in the same God that audience member believed in."
Perhaps teachable moments like these are what make a show centered around joy a milestone for the Project. Clearly, there's no shortage of work to be done, hearts to warm, and ignorance to extinguish. Fortunately, the ever-growing sense of fraternity within the Mahogany Project, and, as a result, Austin's greater LGBTQ community, means the collective resolve to face these challenges has never been stronger. "It's easy to feel isolated by the larger community," says Lyons. "But when you feel like you belong to something greater than yourself, our hope is you can manage your daily struggles, because in times of crisis you have someone to call on."
This sense of belonging is resonating with the Project's members as they've been reflecting on the meaning of joy – which, not surprisingly, takes on various definitions depending on who you ask. "Joy is knowing that if another black trans woman were to step into our group at the beginning of their transition process, they'd have the same level of love and support that I did," says Pe'Rez. "Because, for me, joy is finding peace within yourself."
For Anderson, who has seen the Project grow from a small weekly discussion to one of the city's most powerful tools for LGBTQ education, joy is the end result of six hard-fought years of progress and enlightenment. "There's a movement currently happening in Austin. It's been happening, and now it's finally at the forefront. It's time to celebrate being out and being ourselves. Because if we don't, who else will?"
The Mahogany Project Volume VI: JOY runs Aug. 3 & 4, Fri. & Sat., 7pm, at the Dougherty Arts Center, 1110 Barton Springs Rd. For more information, visit www.themahoganyproject.com.
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