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“So you want to be a woman?”

This is the phrase that Chip Sherman, seemingly alone on the dark stage, repeats over and over, changing the inflection in their voice, picking up speed. The lights brighten more, revealing show creator Randy Ford prone on the floor beside them. She arches her back and lets out a powerful scream. Sherman turns their attention to Ford. “Fix your wrist,” they command. “You can’t wear that. Go change.” The commands become more and more aggressive as Ford struggles to get to her feet. They wear almost the same thing – stylish crop top, loose-fitting joggers, each other’s mirror.

Photography by Michael B. Maine. Pictured: Randy Ford.

They fight. It isn’t “dance-y,” movement that is symbolic or representative of fighting, but  visceral, uncomfortable, both Ford and Sherman grunting and yelling. Sherman forces Ford into a backbend, legs splayed uncomfortably. Sherman applauds, then indicates to the audience they should do the same. For a few harrowing moments, there is only the sound of Sherman’s solo clapping before the audience joins in.

I think that as an audience, we’re never sure when we have a choice. This is a moment when we do. Later on, Sherman calls us out for applauding, asking “Why? Why did you clap when a trans woman was beaten on this stage?” Whether, as individuals, we did or didn’t clap doesn’t matter—the point is that there was applause, and no one protested. We have a choice not to join in if something makes us uncomfortable, but how do we move beyond not doing the bad thing, towards doing the right thing, putting ourselves on the line to lift up others who are being harmed? How do we speak out?

Photography by Michael B. Maine. Pictured: Randy Ford & Saira Barbaric.

Another powerful solo section by Keelan Johnson raises similar questions. Slinking down through the audience in a painted leather jacket, they launch into an exuberant, fierce vogue sequence, their hands flashing, arms swinging until they blur. Suddenly they stop, cutting the music, and directly address the audience about exhaustion, their experience with depression and fatigue, and the expectations placed upon them as a performer to deliver. The speech forces the audience to consider their own expectations for performers, to see them as people with lives and struggles offstage, to acknowledge their value as humans beyond their work as artists.

It’s also firmly rooted in the place where we are. A painted map of Seattle’s Central District by Marcos Everstijn covers the stage in bold lines, major street names rewritten: TRANS. CLOCKABLE. RELIGION. SEX. THEY. Ford and her dancers traverse through the bounds of the thick painted lines, which are reminiscent of maps of Seattle’s historic redlining, racially discriminatory housing laws that kept neighborhoods segregated and contribute to present-day racial divides. But the dancers are fluid; they can’t be contained.

Their relationships with one another, their gender presentations, their attitudes towards the audience, their mode of performance, the register of their emotions—all shift constantly. They are never just one thing, which is the beauty of nonbinary performers who navigate the world in between constructed categories; there is a fluidity to the way they transform themselves, filling multiple roles. In one section, Ford duets with each of the other dancers in turn, gentle, rolling movement counterpointed with sharp isolations. They are in sync with Johnson, then Sherman, then Saira Barbaric, playful and sexy, moving through each connection with a comfortable ease. Moments of play and humor slide into serious narratives about racism, homophobia, and transphobia and back into fantasy and glamor.

Photography by Michael B. Maine. Pictured: Randy Ford & Saira Barbaric.

In one sequence, Ford raps and dances while the crowd cheers. Suddenly she stops, and we hear a list of the names of the trans women of color murdered this year. Then we get back to her vogueing and rapping, the audience as enthusiastic as before. The sharp differences in tone might create cognitive dissonance, but in Ford’s hands, it’s all part of the same message. In her rap, she repeats, “Can I just make my bag?” The point—can we just live our lives? Make our money? Exist in the world without you murdering us?—isn’t lost in the tonal shift; it just intensifies.

Queen Street is raucous, nasty, joyful, angry. It’s a party, a memorial, a kiki, a riot, an interdisciplinary mix of performance art, poetry, rap, liturgical dance, theater, vogue and ballroom. It’s a glimpse into Black queer trans life, beyond the cast’s outer lives as performers and into their lives as people. Ford herself tells the audience that the space she’s created is a space where she can make mistakes, and not have the answers to all our questions.

Photography by Michael B. Maine. Pictured: Randy Ford & Saira Barbaric.

Early in the show, Ford responds to Sherman’s first question, “So you want to be a woman?” She says, “I don’t want to be a woman. I want to be my self.” That’s the ultimate crux of Queen Street. The world we live in is built so tightly around fitting each other in the correct boxes, presenting ourselves so as to be correctly perceived, but Randy and her cast fight, play, and live to exist as themselves, no questions asked.

Queen Street was co-produced by the Central District Forum for Arts & Ideas in their 2019-2020 season Mask/Unmask: Blackness is Not a Monolith, presented September 20th and 21st, 2019 at Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute.