Inside a squat, unmarked red brick building in Sunset Park, it looks like fists are about to fly. Expletives, liquor bottles and two metal chairs soar across a mirrored room crowded with bodies.
“You are not gay!” bellows one young man, swinging the bottle. “You are a heterosexual man! This is not how I raised you!”
Narratives from the borough's frontiers
Welcome to Tuesday night rehearsal at the Theatre of the Oppressed NYC, a nonprofit organization that encourages communities on the margin to create and tour theatrical work based on real-life struggles. All of the actors here are LGBT youth. All of them ran away from home or were thrown out by family, or some combination of the two. And all of them are acting out scenes they've actually lived through, in many cases taking on the roles of the parents, principals and peers who spurned them.
“The entire point of the Theatre of the Oppressed is to change the meaning of the word 'Oppressed' in 'Theatre of the Oppressed,' says Avathar St. Vincent, 19. “It's given me a place to take action on behalf of my community.”
Ava was the first to show up for rehearsal when the director of Oppressed, Katy Rubin, put out a call for participants in the fall. He is a transgender male—born female, he identities as a man—and the emotional tenor of his story is similar to that of his fellow actors.
But in many ways, Ava is different than the rest of the Oppressed troupe, making him something of an outcast among outcasts. Bespeckled, with a mop of auburn hair, he is more reserved than the others. He totes around a thick novel and hangs back when new folks enter the room. While most of the group has urban roots, he comes from a small religious community of 3,000 in Western Ohio.
A year ago, he was just another drummer in the high school band, taking advanced courses at the local college. At the time, he identified as female. There were no openly gay or transgender people in the area–when rumors began that a student at a nearby Christian university was homosexual, that student hung himself.
It was in that environment that Ava's deeply religious parents began to suspect he fell outside of their heterosexual ideal. Soon, they began threatening conversion therapy, hospital time, even arrest. Daily life became excrutiating. And so Ava graduated, hopped on a Greyhound bus, and joined the sea of homeless kids navigating the New York social services system. He also changed his name, and began to identify as a man.
When he arrived, Ava found the basics–food, transient shelter. What he hadn't prepared for was the infighting among homeless youth. “I didn't expect the animosity that I found in the community,” he says. “I expected more people like me, that are just sort of assed-out because of their family situations, but there's also a lot of drug issues. And sometimes I feel that it's just sort of me.”
And so the Oppressed troupe has provided him both an outlet and a refuge while he waits to hear back from NYU, where he hopes to begin studying forensic psychology in the fall.
On Feb. 9, Ava and the troupe will perform their play at the Clemente Soto V