For many Washington-area theatergoers, Shakespeare Theatre Company’s “The Amen Corner,” was the last live theater they saw before the pandemic shut things down in mid-March. A marvelous production of James Baldwin’s powerful 1950s Harlem-set play about the role of church in the Black community, the unwitting season closer received resoundingly positive reviews and attracted enthusiastic audiences.
In bringing famed gay playwright Baldwin’s work to life, STC assembled a stellar team including Qween Andy Jean, a New York-based Black, trans costume designer. Jean says she “felt a great deal of responsibility to dress the characters authentically. We weren’t just creating characters. We were creating our history.”
And while Jean didn’t know the production would be STC’s last non-virtual offering until further notice, she’s pleased that it was: “I was so glad that we were able to tell a story centered on Black women, Black joy, and Black richness. And the audience was part of an experience that was deeply rooted in faith and love. Baldwin’s people are resilient. And that’s what will get us through the COVID-19 crisis. And to me that’s what this piece is about.”
Jean was born in Haiti and moved with her family to Miami where she spent a lot of time struggling with gender identity. “It became clear to me early that I’d need to find support. Those around me didn’t understand me.” She found solace in reading, and spent many hours at the library eschewing homework for queer lit, including Baldwin. “I learned he’d been more than a guy on the scene – he was a philosopher, artist, thinker, writer, unapologetically open in his fullness as a Black queer man. That was and remains profound.”
Long before earning an MFA in design from NYU Tisch School of the Arts, Jean learned to sew at the side of her grandmother who was a dressmaker. “My father thought I should be outside playing football instead of doing embroidery stitches,” she adds with a low chuckle.
“You try so hard to cultivate happy places, generate joy and for some reason it brings other people so much anguish and despair. It feels like you’re disappointing them.”
Instinctively, Jean made her way to New York City. There, she found opportunities to learn and flourish creatively, as well as community and safe space to be a Black trans woman.
After theater was abruptly disrupted, Jean made masks and worked with The Homebound Project, a new independent theater initiative focused on connecting sheltering artists and helping to feed children affected by COVID-19 in NYC and beyond. The three-month online series of performances featured theater works, written by homebound playwrights and recorded by sheltering actors.
She’s also political. “Political by necessity,” she says.
The COVID-19 timeline has been very complex, she says. “During this time, American people reflected on the importance of lives — their own and others. I think the resistance movement was born out of that. And seeing a police officer kneel on George Floyd’s neck for over eight minutes and hearing how he called for his mother, that drove people into the streets. And it’s kept many of us in the streets.”
In recent months, Jean has emerged as a leader in Black Lives Matter and Black Trans Liberation in New York City. Organizing is a full-time commitment, and through the work she has created a family of artists, speakers, a community that believes Black lives matter, that Black trans, queer, and nonbinary lives matter. Increasingly, Jean says, she has stepped more into her role as Qween, embracing her power as a Black trans woman.
“We’re excited for the future of Black lives in this country, but it must include Black trans lives. We’re no longer interested in pacification or being sidelined.”
Quoting the late great writer Toni Morrison, Jean says “This is the time when artists go to work. There’s not time for despair or self-pity, silence, and no room for fear.”
“I keep her message in my heart,” she adds.