Homosexuality in Theater for Young Audiences
In the third scene of Jester’s Cap, the sweet King of Solaria asks his guard what his daughter is doing in the garden. The guard sheepishly explains Princess Amelia is “playing lions” with the court jester Diana. When the doting father demands to know what the young women are stalking, the guard eventually gulps, “each other.” An awkward confusion falls over the guard and the king. The audience is keyed into the subtext. In the first scene we had already seen Diana fawn over the princess—in a manner seemingly beyond friendly adoration. The princess responds, “You’re a fine jester if you can make me smile, and you do that splendidly.”
The play unravels to be a majestic journey of the female court jester and an accompanying knight encountering trolls, woodland foes, and a witch. The production I saw was colorful, delightful, and a tribute to childhood fantasy. Director Bradford Forehand paired up with Binary Theatre (the student-run theater group of Arizona State University) to bring local playwright Daniel Pennyway’s fairy tale to the stage.
What themes do youth pick up on, and what are their parents left to piece together?
Before the performance officially began, the actress playing the court jester walked around to children in the audience telling jokes and catching youngsters’ attention. The audience of fifty or so was mostly comprised of college-age students and a smattering of middle-age faculty members and parents, but a dozen or so children (most under ten) were also present. The playwright told me he thinks the ideal youth audience for Cap is middle school, but he added, “I don’t think a children’s play or a play for teens has to be written differently than a play for adults.” Forehand agreed, “good theater is good theater.” Some elements of the show, such as difficult vocabulary, relatively speaking, (i.e. the use of the word “tantamount”) will sail over young people’s heads, but, overall, younger audience members should still understand the plot. By the same philosophy, what themes do youth pick up on, and what are their parents left to piece together?
The feminist message in the play is overt. In Scene One, Diana bemoans the fact that she, as a woman, cannot be knighted. Then, she sets off on an adventure to save her kingdom and (what do you know) proves she is just as useful (if not more) than her male knight counterpart. At the end of the play, Princess Amelia talks her parents (the king and queen) into making Diana a knight. The message is clear: Girls, you can be whatever you want to be when you grow up! The moral is as evident as the bells on a jester’s cap, but I was more intrigued by the nods to sexuality in the script.
For example, when Sophia is declaring women can be knights she adds quickly, “Also the princess can marry whoever she wants to” while gazing at Diana lovingly. After the court has dispersed, the two young women discuss the future. Sophia asks sullenly if Diana will go off and marry Knight Peter. Diana strongly disagrees with the idea. The girls exchange a couple more pleasantries (flirting?) and Sophia kisses Diana’s check.
From my perspective I chose to interpret the heroines’ relationship as a budding romance. But I created that entirely from a lot of subtext. There were no clear nods to lesbian love. So much so the PhD candidate in Theater sitting next to me furrowed her brow post-show asking, “Wait, so was I supposed to apply queer theory to that?” The relationship was so vague she thought she might have made up a social issue where one hadn’t existed. The potential love connection would have appeared unclear even if it had been hetero-normative.
Arizona is a “red state.” The latter means gay marriage is banned (and no civil unions), the state mandates adoption agencies give preference to straight couples, and there are no hospital visitation allowances for homosexual partners, etc. Despite the state’s politics as a whole, Phoenix is a fairly liberal community. But, it is also home to many religious communities who do not historically support gay rights in particular. That said, after wondering if she had concocted a gay relationship in this instance, my friend put herself in the shoes of a mother whose child would have just seen the show.
We pondered, “What if the child asked about the nature of the two women’s friendship?” Would a parent simply say the two were friends? Is that what the parent truly would have seen? On the other hand, would parents interested in norming homosexuality be able to use such an imprecise example to explain the young women’s relationship to their children. Perhaps the point is it doesn’t really matter what the women’s relationship was or if it could be defined.
I asked Pennyway and Forehand if they had suffered any startled or negative audience reactions to the potential homosexual tensions on stage. Both acknowledged they had intended the women to be romantically interested in each other. Neither had encountered anything more than a question or two, which was slightly surprising since homosexuality in children’s plays is so rare. However, the sexuality themes bookended the play in that the two women only interacted at the very beginning and very end of the story. Mainly, we were following Diana’s adventure, which didn’t include the princess.
Pennyway stated, “Ultimately this isn’t a play about sexuality; it’s a play about heroes, which happens to have two homosexual characters in it.” Forehand agreed, stating the women’s attraction was an aspect of ”their characters, not the story.” Pennyway noted he could have easily made the characters’ sexuality more evident by adding a sweeping kiss, or more transparent dialogue, but he recognized that would “alienate anyone who’s even mildly uncomfortable with the idea.” True, currently the homosexuality is easy to gloss over if that’s a parent’s goal—which could be good or bad depending on your critical perspective.
On one hand, you could argue if you’re gonna present a case for sexual equality, then present it. Go all out, not halfway. Make children understand the issue and encourage them to have an opinion. On the other hand, so many narratives that include sexual identity end up totally about sexual identity. Sometimes stories contain gay characters. It doesn’t mean those characters must live in “gay stories.” Pennyway offered, “I don’t want audiences to be uneasy; I want them to realize just how easy it is to be comfortable with change. So if no one says anything about the fact that my hero is a lesbian, I’m kind of okay with that.” Regardless of which path (or a mix) is the “best,” any path that has started familiarizing youth about differences in life within our culture is doing good.
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Great read Alice! I liked what you said about narratives that include sexual identity end up being totally about sexual identity. Like you said, sometimes narratives have gay characters. That doesn't mean the narrative has to center around sexual identity. I think that this is an important distinction to make especially when working in the field of TYA.
Again, great read Alice!
Enjoyed the article and what appears to be the sensitivity in which the sexuality issue was handled. My main response is to the comment “I don’t think a children’s play or a play for teens has to be written differently than a play for adults.” - If that's the case then take your six or eight year old to see a production of 'Pillowman', or 'Venus and Fur.'
I believe what is referenced is "way it is written" not the content matter. Young people are just as sophisticated as adults when it comes to form & style. Their concerns, no surprise, and their POV can be different. PS "Venus in Fur"