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Actor Avi Roque prepares for 10 roles in ‘Everybody’

Actor says ‘lottery’ approach to casting leaves them anxious, overwhelmed

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Avi Roque, gay news, Washington Blade
Actor Avi Roque says acting appealed to them as a means of escape. (Photo courtesy STC)

Avi Roque caught the acting bug in sixth grade. The Latinx trans/nonbinary actor was cast as Benedict in a Catholic primary school version of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing.”  

The San Francisco Bay-area native went on to study acting at California State University, Fullerton, and following graduation, relocated to Chicago where they began acting professionally and transitioned. 

Now, Roque (pronounced Rō-kay) is poised to appear in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s season-opener “Everybody,” out playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, (“Octoroon,” “Gloria”) contemporary, fun, gender-inclusive take on the medieval morality play. 

Staged by trans director Will Davis (“Colossal”), the plot is fairly simple: God assigns Death (Nancy Robinette) to let Everybody know their time is up. Everybody is encouraged to bring a friend along for the final journey. What’s complicated is that at the top of each performance, some of the actors are assigned their parts from a lottery resulting in the possibility of 120 variations. 

In a recent phone interview, Roque, 30, described their initial attraction to acting as “a search for some kind of escape; finding a way to feel free.” But was this what they had in mind?

WASHINGTON BLADE: Is learning “Everybody” as difficult as it sounds? 

AVI ROQUE: It’s a gargantuan task and it’s really challenging. I’m learning different tracks that consists of multiple roles, 10 parts in all, including (title character) Everybody. We’re in week four of rehearsal and I’m feeling anxiety and overwhelmed. But hey, what a great exercise. (They laugh.)

BLADE: Does having a gay playwright and a trans director make it easier? 

ROQUE: Having work written by or created by other people from the LGBTQ-plus community does make me feel a little more relaxed. But I’m also entering institutions where I’m not sure where they’re at in the trans/nonbinary learning curve. Are they able to support or accommodate me? So sometimes that’s the bigger picture.

BLADE: What does trans/nonbinary mean for you in terms of casting?

ROQUE: Looking back on my previous works, I can see that most of the things that I was auditioning for were very related to my trans/nonbinary identity. For instance, when I did “The Crucible” for Steppenwolf for Young Adults in Chicago, they cast me as Mercy Lewis/ Ezekiel Cheever. Of course, trans can mean many things; it doesn’t look one way. Not long ago, I was considered for the role of a cisgender male. I was definitely down for this. They were seeing me as the person with the energy vibe and the essence that felt right for the character and less about other things. But to be honest, I don’t feel as much of an abundance of that kind of casting as I’d like. My last show in January was “Tiny Beautiful Things” at the Old Globe in San Diego and it was about letter writing. There were multiple letters and I played multiple characters. One of the letters was written by a trans man. I was told I wasn’t cast only because I was trans. I was told I was there because of my skill. But still, I wonder. 

BLADE: Is it changing?

ROQUE: I do feel shifts and it’s exciting. I think ultimately my goal is to get to a place where, yes, I am trans/nonbinary but we’re not commenting on it or teaching about it.

BLADE: Do you find yourself being a teacher?

ROQUE: Sometimes.A friend said to me, ‘Trails don’t blaze themselves,’ so I feel like a trailblazer and I really care what I can do to make it easier for the next person. I want them to feel less anxiety and pressure and be able to just exist and do their work.

BLADE: Any thoughts on those who don’t like your pronouns, or are slow to understand nonbinary?

ROQUE: I value people who make an effort to rewire their brains. Because that’s really what it’s about. I’ve arrived a place — it’s taken time — to just meet people where they’re at. All I can do is say my piece and affirm who I am. Whether anyone else wants to get on board or not, I have no control over that.  Sometime it’s hard because all I’m really asking for is respect. I’m a human being who uses they/them pronouns. Change is scary and that’s when resistance comes into play. And not everyone has the capacity to change depending upon where they are in their own lives. With our actor who’s playing Death, Nancy Robinette, I feel her desire to absorb and learn about trans/nonbinary. I’m grateful for this.

BLADE: What’s on the horizon for you?

ROQUE: I’m planning a big move to L.A. at the beginning of the new year. Chicago really helped me to grow. I transitioned in Chicago. I grew as an artist in Chicago. But now it’s time for a change. 

BLADE: And your personal life? Are you taken? 

ROQUE: (They laughs.) Yes, I’m in a very new relationship. It’s quite a love story. It’s long distance, but we’re together. So yes, I’m taken. 

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Theater

‘Nancy,’ soaked in ‘80s nostalgia, is ‘queer AF’

Mosaic production led by out director Ken-Matt Martin

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Ken-Matt Martin (Photo courtesy Martin)

‘Nancy’ 
Through April 21
Mosaic Theater Company at Atlas Performing Arts Center
1333 H St., N.E.
$53-$70
Mosaictheater.org

Set in 1985, smack dab in the middle of the Reagan years, Rhiana Yazzie’s “Nancy” is totally soaked in nostalgia: shoulder pads, high hair, Van Halen, etc. For some theatergoers, it jogs the memory and for others serves as an introduction to an alien era.

Out director Ken-Matt Martin describes the production (now at Mosaic Theater) as “queer AF.” He continues, “But that’s true with everything I touch. My aesthetics and interests are unapologetically queer. When you first walk into theater, you see a big ass picture of Nancy’s face. The whole play is kind of set on her face.”

Martin, who puts his age as “somewhere over 30,” gives a brief rundown via telephone: “‘Nancy’ places two women on parallel tracks and we get to watch them on a collision course. Esmeralda [Anaseini Katoa], a Navajo mother and advocate determined to improve the condition of her family and reservation. Her story is juxtaposed to that of Nancy Reagan [Lynn Hawley] who’s busy at the White House consulting with society astrologer Joan Quigley to help guide Reagan [Michael Kevin Darnall] and his administration. The women’s worlds come together over Nancy’s direct ancestral connection to Pocahontas.” 

The busy storyline also includes a moment surrounding Rock Hudson’s final days, a moment when well-coiffed, clothes-crazy Nancy was presented with the opportunity to make a difference but chose not to. 

“And the work doesn’t let Nancy off the hook,” adds Martin. “It’s a full meal of a play.”

Produced in partnership with New Native Theatre based in the Twin Cities, Mosaic’s epic offering, a very D.C. play about ancestry and ambition, almost looks at Ron and Nancy as cartoon characters but isn’t without empathy.  

Martin and Yazzie both love satire and absurdity; they enjoy comedy and things that are funny until they’re not. So, the evening shifts in tone as it moves into more serious areas, particularly an exploration of how the ‘80s and Reagan’s failed trickle-down agenda set the stage for many of today’s problems.  

The director’s way into theater was as a child actor. After successfully begging his mother to drive him from their native Little Rock, Ark., to a regional Atlanta audition, he booked an appearance on Nickelodeon’s landmark series “All That” and snagged an agent in the process. He continued to act for a time before becoming interested in other facets of showbiz. 

After graduating with an MFA in directing from Brown University/Trinity Repertory Company, Martin embarked on a terrifically busy schedule. In addition to freelance directing, he has helmed and helms various prestigious companies as artistic director and managing producer (Pyramid Theatre Company in Des Moines, IA, Victory Gardens Theater in Chicago, and was recently appointed Interim Artistic Director of Baltimore Center Stage and Arkansas Repertory Theatre.)

Currently an itinerant professional (Martin gave up his place in Chicago and hops from job to job where they house him), he says, “It can get a little old, but overall, not bad at all.” 

Next up, Martin is directing Olney Theatre’s production “Long Way Down,” the adaptation of a Young Adult novel by DMV native Jason Reynolds. “It’s a big regional tryout that after a limited engagement in Olney leaves for the Apollo Theatre in New York. I’m excited.” 

Martin is at home with plays that are tricky to stage, making him a good fit for “Nancy” with its multiple locations, scope, and scale. He’s enjoyed the challenge of the work’s collapsing time lines and the playwright’s tough, complicated, smart, and fast-moving language. 

“Perhaps most importantly,” he adds. “Rhiana has entrusted me with the opportunity to tell this very unique story, a story that can resonate with Native people and Native audiences. This part is very new to me as a director.”

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Theater

Talented pair of local queer actors tackles ‘Little Shop of Horrors’

Ford’s production features terrific score

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Chani Wereley (Audrey) and Derrick D. Truby Jr. (Seymour) in the 2024 Ford’s Theatre production of Little Shop of Horrors. (Photo by Scott Suchman)

‘Little Shop of Horrors’ 
Through May 18
Ford’s Theatre
511 10th St., N.W.
$33-$95
Fords.org 

Ever since premiering off-Broadway in 1982, “Little Shop of Horrors” has drawn a devoted following of avid audiences as well as performers eager to act in the show. Now playing at Ford’s Theatre, the doo-wop, dark comedy features a terrific cast including a wildly talented pair of local queer actors who’ve longed to appear in the show since they were kids. 

Set in the urban 1960s, Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s hit show with a terrific score follows the wacky rise of Seymour, a nebbishy florist in a Skid Row shop who changes his fortunes by unintentionally marketing an exotic, human eating plant.  

Chani Wereley, 28, who plays Seymour’s love interest Audrey, a hyper femme downtowner with an edge, has had her on eye the role for years. Wereley says, “Audrey’s been around the block more than once, but I approach her as a person who moves through the world with love and hope.”

The queer D.C. native adds, “On long trips to visit family in Canada or Florida, the first thing we’d do is pop a ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ video [film version] into the car’s VHS player. I’ve watched is so many times, I could quote the whole movie to you.”

After auditioning to play Audrey in director Kevin S. McAllister’s production at Ford’s, Wereley never thought she’d book the part, and when they said she got it, she cried.  

Similarly, Tobias A. Young, 34, the pansexual actor who voices the part of the bloodthirsty plant affectionately dubbed Audrey II, explains his intense interest in the work: “I started watching the film in ’86. Growing up as a little gay boy in Calvert County, Md., I wanted to be blonde Audrey [played by Ellen Green in the movie]. I didn’t know much about musicals at the time, but I was absorbed.” 

When asked by Ford’s to play the voracious plant Audrey II without auditioning, his reply was an unhesitant “yes.” 

Voicing a role requires Young to sing from backstage in a black box rigged with monitors and a mixing board. He says, “people ask if I’m singing from inside of the ever-growing, scary plant. No, I’m not, and that’s fine. But let’s face it, actors love to be seen on stage, but I don’t feel entirely unseen as Audrey II.”

He’s worked hard and successfully with formidable puppeteers Ryan Sellers and Jay Frisby to bring parts of himself to the carnivorous plant — his sassiness, own movements, and even a tilt of his head; their efforts have drawn the actual Young into the show. 

Both Wereley and Young possess gorgeous, emotive voices as evidenced by Wereley’s striking rendition of Audrey’s “Suddenly Seymour,” and Young’s soulful “Feed Me (Git It).” Additionally, both actors are also big on queer representation in theater. 

When her young pals were listening to Britney Spears, Wereley was dancing to retro tunes like “Mashed Potato Time,” and her favorite song to this day, the Shirelle’s girl group anthem “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow.” As Audrey, Wereley eschews the character’s usual platinum hair for a bouncy brunette, cherry-streaked wig, tight pencil skirts, swing coats, and her very own half-sleeve tattoo. 

“It’s important for people to see themselves on stage,” she says. “Seeing me or someone like me is inherently interesting. Being that person on Instagram or with the institution, cast, or audiences is meaningful. It’s important.”

In 2011, a couple years after finishing high school, Young landed a part in “Dream Girls” at Toby’s Dinner Theatre, and he’s been working professionally ever since. Growing up, he didn’t see a lot of himself – Black and queer – on social media. He now wants to be open and honest for those out there who might not feel seen, he says

An introvert who lets everything loose on the stage, Young says, “theater is a safe space for queer people. That’s the first place we feel safe, particularly in school. And this is why we need theaters in schools, now more than ever.”

He adds, “What’s great about Ford’s is its surprises, especially when they switch up casting. It’s meaningful to see the shows you love, but why not see them with a twist? Using unexpected actors and incorporating queer people just makes it that much better.”

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Woman crashes ex-girlfriend’s wedding to a man in new play

Nonbinary playwright Bryna Turner brings ‘At the Wedding’ to Studio

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Playwright Bryna Turner (Photo by Lila Barth)

‘At the Wedding’
Through April 21
Studio Theatre
1501 14th St., N.W.
$45-$99
Studiotheatre.org

For nonbinary playwright Bryna Turner, the way to theater was first as an actor. But as gender non-conforming, they couldn’t really see a future in it, so they decided to write their own plays.

“At the Wedding,” Turner’s play about a woman named Carlo who crashes her ex-girlfriend’s wedding to a man, is currently making its area debut at Studio Theatre with a production staged by out director Tom Story.  The comedy made its world premiere at LCT3 at Lincoln Center Theater and was featured in the New York Times Best of 2022 “Unforgettable Theatrical Moments” category. 

Brooklyn-based Turner, 33, is inspired by experience, storytelling, and language. With “At the Wedding,” they humorously explore loneliness, estrangement, and a love for living.

WASHINGTON BLADE:  How do we meet Carlo? 

BRYNA TURNER: In the opening monologue, Carlo is at the kids table at a wedding reception telling them not to make her mistake. You’ll fall in love but that will only break your heart. That kicks the show off and this is who we’re dealing with.  

BLADE: How was falling in love for you? 

TURNER: My experience when I fell in love was that I was joining the human race. But then comes heartbreak…. that other thing everyone was always talking about. Poems and music took on new meaning. 

BLADE: But you can find a laugh in pain? 

TURNER: Comedic tone is important to me because that’s how I view the world. I like to have a laugh when things are hard or sad. 

Also, I feel like it’s a way to bring people in. You relate to a character who makes you laugh. Two of my plays begin with a lesbian yelling at the audience. It’s almost like crowd work.

BLADE: Were you ever hesitant about writing queer plays? 

TURNER: I was lucky at Holyoke [Mount Holyoke College where Turner was an undergrad]. Director Brooke O’Hara was teaching there when I attended and she brought in some queer plays; she showed me there was a canon to join and that was exciting.

BLADE: When did you first identify as nonbinary? 

TURNER: In 2022. I’d been butch-presenting for over a decade. Then during the pandemic, I began spending more time alone. When alone, you grant yourself more permission to think. 

For me, I’d always wanted to be independent and not ask for anything, to be butch on my own. As nonbinary, suddenly I had to ask people to use my pronouns. Also, it granted the opportunity to allow people to surprise me in mostly positive ways.

BLADE: Was becoming a produced playwright tough?

TURNER: I wanted to be a playwright at 21 and I had a play produced when I was 27. Now, looking back, I can see it happened pretty quickly, but at the time it felt like forever.  

While doing my MFA in playwriting at Rutgers University, I was working in the box office at the Public Theater in New York where I managed to see things like “Fun Home” and “Hamilton.” 

If I wasn’t working, I was commuting to Rutgers in New Jersey, and I was always writing. I had to be diligent. I’m a perfectionist, but I got things done. I wrote scenes in between waiting for customers at the box office or on the train. It took a lot of energy; drive pushes you. 

BLADE: A while before “At the Wedding,” you wrote “Phases of the Moon” about lesbian poet Elizabeth Bishop. What sparked that interest? 

TURNER: It’s about her time at Vassar College when she fell in love with a woman. It’s set in the 1930s but it’s bit anachronistic. There’s a scene with a Tegan and Sara song. 

Bishop identified as a socialist vegetarian while at one of the most expensive women’s colleges during the height of the Great Depression. I thought to myself, ‘I know that girl, too.’ I love how we can know this person across nearly 100 years.

BLADE: Can you describe your formative years? 

TURNER: I grew up the youngest of four in a small coastal town surrounded by redwoods. It was pretty rural but included an enclave of hippies. Despite being a shy kid, I developed an interest in theater. My parents were relieved. I had tried a lot of things and quickly lost interest: soccer, ballet, Tee-Ball. I remember striking out and all my family laughing. I threw down the bat and that was it. 

BLADE: Do you think about who you’re writing for? 

TURNER: I do. I’m thinking of a queer audience, and writing things that I want to see. In doing that, I’ve been happily surprised that straight people want to come along too.

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