When Deejay Gray was in high school, he was so scared of people finding out he was gay that he kept to himself and kept quiet.
These days, as program director with Spectrum, a theater arts education program for high school LGBTQ youth, he, curriculum director Lucretia Anderson and program manager Paul Major are getting a front row seat for how today’s 14- and 15-year-olds are handling the same issues. “They’re less concerned about what people’s perceptions are about them and more interested in their own journey than outside pressure,” Gray explains.
The facilitators say it’s empowering for LGBTQ kids to have a safe spaces.
“We say that being queer is a magic power and that they have superpowers when they’re in this room,” Gray says. With that sense of safety and acceptance, he says he’s not surprised to notice a student vogueing in the mirror between exercises and rehearsals, clearly living their best life. “There’s no judgment or fear in here, so nothing can touch them.”
Originally conceived in 2014 by Richmond Triangle Players and TheatreLab as a partnership, Spectrum is modeled after the national program True Colors, created by the Theater Offensive. The program took a hiatus last year and returned in 2019 with the School of the Performing Arts in the Richmond Community, known as SPARC, as a third partner. Using exercises, master classes and workshops, students learn the basics of storytelling, performance, production and playwriting, the better to collectively produce a completely original piece of theater. According to Gray, Spectrum is the only program of its kind in Virginia and one of only 25 in the country.
It can be intimidating for young people working through gender issues to tell their personal stories, so Spectrum aims to give each ensemble member a safe, supportive and creative environment paired with proper artistic training and support. Just don’t get the idea that this is some kind of “Richmond’s Got Talent” set-up, because Gray says it doesn’t bring young people in based on talent.
“Our main focus is to facilitate community, empowerment and advocacy,” he says. “Luckily for us, they happened to be talented.”
Part of the reason that young people feel so comfortable being themselves during the Spectrum sessions is because the first order of the ensemble-building process is to establish a community agreement that lays out the agreed-upon rules of the room. Zucchini is the safe word for students to use when they just need to get out of the room by themselves for whatever reason. Participant Jaesean Plummer recalls the rule-writing process as memorable.
“It stuck with me because of the way it was presented,” he says, grinning. “Rules were worded humorously, so it was funny, but they also reminded us all to respect each other in this space.”
Through fall and spring sessions, the seven students meet twice weekly with a goal of creating a piece of devised theater as an ensemble and presenting it in the spring. This year’s piece, “Wardrobia: into the Closet and Back Again” involved a young person named Max being shoved into the janitor’s closet at school, which results in a magical journey of self-discovery to the mystical land of Wardrobia where Max meets colorful, complicated characters.
“We’re not trying to take these kids to Broadway,” Gray explains. “Our goal is to help them be comfortable walking down Broad Street.”
Through the process of writing the story, Gray encouraged them to think about creating a protagonist for dramatic tension. When he asked them who the bad guys should be, the answer surprised him.
“They said their biggest issues are with the mean gay kids, that they even bully the straight kids,” he recalls. “Lucretia, Paul and I listen to them and marvel at how different our experiences were.”
Morgan Howard was one of the attendees in Spectrum’s first session in 2014, where she was the only participant of color. It helped that one of the facilitators was also black and she looked to her as a role model. Since then, Howard has filled the youth director role of the group, which this year has two black members, Plummer and Alana Anderson.
“Getting to be in the facilitator role now and hearing about their journeys from them made me want to cry,” Howard says.
Spectrum allows these young people to regularly spend time with like-minded individuals.
“Working with these kids reminds me that I’m no longer the young one and to be the old guy is kind of jarring,” the 31-year-old Gray admits. “But the stuff we’ve learned from them is amazing. I think to myself: ‘Wow, how different would I have been in school if I’d lived in this world?’”