“I’m curious why we really don’t talk about HIV/AIDS anymore,” begins Dani Tirrell, who’s noticed that advances in medication may be giving people a false sense of security about the AIDS crisis. A trip to Atlanta a few years ago brought the epidemic sharply into focus as an ongoing issue “The HIV infection rate is climbing, especially with young, Black, queer men. It’s a crazy epidemic in Atlanta. It’s still something that’s hitting communities really hard, especially Black communities.” Thinking about the past and present of AIDS/HIV lead Tirrell to contemplate the places where gay people found sanctuary, especially the Black and Latinx gay community.
The concept for Tirrell’s new work-in-progress, FagGod, centers on places of historically queer sanctuary. Disco clubs and bathhouses were of huge importance during the 70s and 80s, as places of both expression and communion, but were simultaneously unsafe spaces. Drug use, transference of HIV, and police raids meant these much needed sanctuaries were complicated by real danger. Tirrell finds a parallel dichotomy in the church.
“Especially for a lot of Black gay folk, the church was this other place where you found sanctuary, but then you couldn’t be out of the closet, you had to sneak around. A lot of the pastors were gay or bi or queer and they were sleeping with some of the congregants, which happened to be younger teens. So these three places in my mind were places of sanctuary, but also of places of death, on multiple levels.”
As for the title, Tirrell knows it’s controversial, but it reflects the complicated nature of these spaces, and also refers to another large component of the piece. To tell this story, Tirrell is drawing inspiration from the idols or “gods” of these sanctuary spaces.
“In the Church…people would bow down to the pastor and oh the pastor can do no wrong…When you look at the bath house, you’re going to idolize the perfect male body and physique… In the Continental Baths, in New York, Bette Midler was singing shows along with Barry Manalow as her piano player. [In the] discos, you have Grace Jones, you have Cher, Sylvester, all of these iconic figures.”
FagGod, showing May 16-18, takes over the entire downstairs of Langston Hughes Performance Art Institue in a performance experience that is part dance party, part social commentary. Tirrell is co-creating and performing with two queer spoken word artists, Naa Akura and Anastacia Renee. It was important to Tirrell that queer women’s voices be a part of the work, because of the role of queer women during the height of the AIDS epidemic. When gay men and trans women were dying by the thousands, queer women and trans men stepped up. Tirrell recalls reading about a lesbian woman who buried 60 of her friends inside of a few years.
“That story was so important, because the queer women were in hospice, taking care of the men, or bringing them into their homes, making funeral arrangements, because the families totally rejected them. So you can’t have that story without having the voice of queer women in that story.”
Much of the movement will be improv-driven, in part to reflect the improvisational nature of club dancing, and also because of the way Tirrell wants the audience to interact with the work. “I want people to come into a situation where they’re free to dance also, so it’s not just about the performers performing; the audience is a part of this.” When the story unfolds around the viewers, rather than separated from them on discrete sides of a theatre, their presence becomes explicit in the work. The audience is asked to see themselves as part of something bigger. Tirrell thinks about it this way:
“Yes you bought your ticket. Great. Thank you. But that’s not enough anymore. How do you contribute to what’s happening? What do you take away from that when you have to actually participate in something instead of just being a consumer?”
Seeing the individual as a part of a larger group extends beyond Tirrell’s performance work, and into Tirrell’s work in the community. Tirrell has been a major player in the art scene the last few years, consulting and curating at an impressive number of arts organizations, like Seattle Theatre Group, On the Boards, Central District Forum for Arts and Ideas, and others. For Tirrell, a big part of that work has been creating access for underrepresented artists, especially inside institutions that have built around a Eurocentric aesthetic.
“I understand that if I do the work, it has to open doors for other people. If I do the work, it has to be work that makes people understand that you are capable of doing that work also. Where we are at in the world, you have to have somebody stand in front and pretty much take the bullets…I recognize the fact that it has been done for me, and so I believe it is my responsibility to make sure I pass that on to other people. I understand through the work that I do, through the privilege that I have that I can walk into doors that other people are not able to.”
And the work organizations need to do goes beyond including minority artists. “I think people feel like if you put queer bodies, Black bodies, Latinx bodies, Asian bodies, differently-abled bodies into the space that’s enough. It’s not enough,” Says Tirrell, “If you’re not changing your policies, your procedures, your thought process about how to support those bodies, you’re just putting them in there to make yourself feel good.” Real change requires including artists in the process and deep examination of institutional procedure. “It’s really taking everything from the ground and destroying it to rebuild it. Most organizations are so afraid of that because they’ve been built on this idea that if we just plug in a face, then we’ve done our job. But if the face isn’t valued, if the person isn’t valued, if the person doesn’t feel like they have a part in the process of it, then they’re just like I don’t want to mess with that organization anymore.”
The night before our interview, Tirrell saw Stacy Abrams speak at Town Hall. Tirrell has been finding inspiration in Black women political figures, like Dr. Joy Degruy, Simone Sanders, and Abrams. One quote of Abrams particularly stuck with Tirrell, It’s not about the victory, it’s about the fight. “I’m understanding I have to fight,” Tirrell says, “For this world to be the world that everyone says it wants it to be. You have to fight. And the fight is not pretty at times, you get exhausted, you get mad, you get frustrated, but this world can’t be the world that we see if we’re not willing to fight.” Tirrell is also quick to point out that it’s not just the person in the White House that we need to resist, but all around us. We have to be willing to ruffle some feathers in order to confront the harmful values that are so deeply entrenched all around us.
“I’m learning to fight in love, because I can fight in anger really quickly, so I’m learning to fight in love…And it may never be a victory. But if I don’t keep fighting that’s not going to give anybody else the permission to fight the battles that they have to fight. Because I know people are watching me.”
Don’t miss FagGod, playing May 16-18 at Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute. For information and tickets visit: https://faggod.brownpapertickets.com/