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Q&A with AGIT Lab's J. Michael Kinsey

April 10, 2016

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J. Michael Kinsey is a second year PhD student at Cornell University in the Department of Performing and Media Arts. He is a member of Actor's Equity, a two-time Audelco Award Nominee, and also noted for his theatrical contribution on the 2014 Bessie award winning piece Mr. Tol E. Rance. AGIT Lab: The Kids (A Glimpse of SHADE) (April 14-16) has been workshopped in NYC and Montreal, Canada. Kinsey is a thinker, writer, actor, director and cultural critic of Black performance and theatre.

How did this piece come together for you?

“This is a piece I’ve now been working on for, I guess, almost two years now. (This story) is not necessarily my personal experience but more so things that I’ve observed -- or critiqued -- about black gay men. A lot of it is from the club scene and the ballroom scene. I’m not in the ballroom scene but I’ve encountered it and so it’s my experience (and) things I’ve viewed or stories I’ve heard.”

What is the ballroom scene?

“The ballroom scene is always so difficult to explain. It’s probably because it’s just not my community but it is a community of, I guess it began of black and Latin men, who have developed what they call a house. It’s basically a kinship, underground community where they compete in balls, which is kind of like this pageantry expression.”

Compete in terms of organizing balls or…?

“No, like a pageant. They have different categories. It kind of is a replication of or has been drawn from the modeling runway. So, there are different categories from ‘Face’ to ‘Butch Queen Realness’ to ‘Fem Queen Realness.’ I guess it started as a drag thing but it has evolved into this massive, like I said, pageantry that has several different categories. The play is not just about that but I’m really trying to bring different perspectives of what black gay life is and the complexities, try to trouble it but also kind of just kind of show an authenticity of this particular culture.”

So often stories that are not told from a white heterosexual male perspective are called on to be representative of that perspective as a whole. Do you view this as a more nuanced collection of stories rather than a full representation of that perspective?

“I would say that. I’m definitely not trying to say, ‘this is how it is.’ This is a snapshot and it is a particular experience but I also want this piece to start a conversation so that other experiences can be exposed and interrogated.”

That way people would have more of an opportunity to tell their stories?

“Absolutely. Even people could say, regardless of how they identify, ‘I understand that that exists. That’s not (my experience) but let’s talk about this because this exists as well.’ I want it to be a conversation starter.”

You mention not being a part of the ballroom scence, how have you been able to write authentically from a perspective that’s not necessarily your own?

“When I say the ballroom scene, I am a gay man, but I’m not in a ballroom scene. I’m not in a house. I’m not in a House of Ebony or a House of Chanel but I have friends that are. So, I kind of recall experiences that they told me. Of course, Paris is Burning is a point of reference. I won’t say this show is trying to critique that or is a spinoff of that but for that particular part, I might reference that or I might reference videos of vogueing that I’ve seen.

“But, I also talk about the mundane life of dating as a black gay man, which I have experienced. I also talk a lot about online culture and online dating in this show and how location-based sex apps are really prevalent in how gay men perform and interact. That I’ve experienced. That I’ve talked a lot about with friends. I just went to DC for spring break and I didn’t know it but I had a lot of experiences that weekend that are informing where this piece is going. I just use those types of experiences -- my experiences being in the clubs and the club scene -- those experiences, my experiences with other men, and like I said, I have conversations with my friends a lot or they’ll just tell me about their dating experiences and their wild stories and I’m like, ‘that needs to be in someone’s play.’”

How many performers are involved in this production?

“It’s just me. Media is really integral in this piece. I use a lot of sound, I have video in it. One of my characters is on video, we hope. I haven’t seen the footage yet but we hope that will come to fruition. I’m really interested in mixing media and theatre for this piece.”

Where did that idea come from?
“Partly boredom. I’ve been doing theatre all my life, basically. So you just get tired of the ‘lights up’ and we just talk and sing and maybe dance and then ‘lights down.’ I’m like, what are the other ways we can make theatre more innovative? I also have a big musical theatre background. That’s what my undergrad is in. There is singing in the show, original music.”

What kind of music?
“House music, basically. I’m trying to put some spoken word in there, we’ll see how that goes because that’s not really my wheelhouse. I think I can pull it off. I hope so. Just trying to push myself. I’m just thinking of the interesting things you can do with theatre.”

What kind of experience do you want the audience to have coming to this show?

“I really want them to feel they had a theatrical experience. It’s interesting you ask that because part of the reason I never decided to go into film was because I am a theatre person. I was trained to be very big. I have a very big personality, too, so when I was filming the character I was like, this is definitely, even though this is on film, this is going to translate as theatre. That’s going to be really interesting, you know? The video is me as this character and he’s the only one that’s on video. It just kind of works, too, because the character is a news anchor, so I try to like create this real news show, but he’s of course over the top.

“But in terms of the piece, I really just want to, this is a niche community, but I do think that when you talk about white male patriarchy or heteronormativity, I think that there is a stereotype people have of black gay men. Actually, I think there are two. I think you see the flaming queen and then you also think of the DL (down low) guy. The thug on the street, he doesn’t look like he’s gay but you find out he’s having sex with men. And those are not stereotypes in that those two men do exist. Those two bodies do exist but there are many different identities and ways that people perform their sexuality in between those two markers. So, like I said, I don’t feel like I’m saying, ‘This is how it is. Boom. You know how black gay life is when you leave the show.’ No. It’s a snapshot. This is a picture of a particular experience and I want to start the conversation for folks, to trouble it, to critique it, and for those who do identify with this world, to say but what about this?”

Are there funny elements of this production?

“There are funny parts but it’s also very sad. Any good show you want to make folks laugh, cry, and get mad and that’s what I’m trying to do -- and offend, or make folks uncomfortable. And I know this show is doing that, especially in this environment.”

Why would people be uncomfortable?

“I’m a very direct person and this show deals with addiction. It deals with gender performativity. It’s very crass. There’s a lot of language in the show. It does not adhere to respectability politics. It is raw. This show talks about drug use. It talks addiction. It talks about depression. Or even if it doesn’t talk about it (directly), suggests it. A lot of people don’t like to have those conversations, but these things are indicative to this community. Now this community is not just fraught with that. There is joy here. There is self empowerment, but there’s also a sadness, I think.”

Are there any other themes you deal with?

“I don’t want to give it away but there’s a term that we throw around in the gay community, those of us who use gay language, ‘throwing shade.’ So, I just want to say I’m playing with that in the show. I’m playing with, what does shade mean? I’m playing with shade, is what I’ll say.”

J. Michael Kinsey