Arts·Queeries

What does a queer future look like? These Rhubarb Festival creators have some ideas

Ammanuel Solomon, Adam Barrett and Athena Holmes are taking out their artistic crystal balls for the festival's 40th edition.

Ammanuel Solomon, Adam Barrett and Athena Holmes are taking out their artistic crystal balls

A promotional image for Temple of the Divine Queer. (Trixie & Beever)

Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens.

This week, Canada's longest-running new works festival kicks off its 40th edition, just as the theatre that houses it, Buddies in Bad Times, continues to celebrates the same anniversary. And though there's pretty much something for everyone in the eclectic queer splendor that is this year's program, one theme does emerge from quite a few of the work: explorations of queer future/isms.

In The BiG SiSSY Show: The Message, Montreal genderqueer drag artist/musician/creator Athena Holmes presents a queer Afrofuturist rock opera. In Temple of the Divine Queer, we find an immersive performance created by gaggle of queers (including artists Adam Barrett, Trixie & Beever and drag artist Fluffy Soufflé) that imagines a future where "queer" has become the dominant religion. In Ammanuel Solomon's Andromeda Genesis β, an otherworldly multimedia installation takes over Rhubarb, sharing the fable of an intergalactic cyborg.

I talked to Holmes, Barrett and Solomon about their work, what it's trying to express and where we go from here.

Tell me about your show at Rhubarb.

Ammanuel Solomon: My piece is called Andromeda Genesis β. It's an interactive lighting, projection and film installation. The content of the show revolves around the tale of an intergalactic cyborg, my unique experience of being a QPOC and their analogous relationship to each other. In essence, we are attempting to tell two wildly different but parallel stories at the same time. Being a part of the festival is already so exciting, but there is an added level excitement for me as this is the first original piece I've ever put up since graduating and it's the debut of a project I'm calling "The Andromeda Series" — which will be an exploration into the amalgam of performance, film, lighting, projection, music and storytelling that we are inducting with this piece.

Athena Holmes: The BiG SiSSY Show: The Message is an Afrofuturist rock opera based on my drag alter ego and musical project BiG SiSSY.  It tells the story of a witch from Black Starr Planet who was sent to Earth to help deliver a message to save humanity from its own destruction. Earth and Black Starr are sister planets and their interdependency requires the health of both planets for their survival. Earth's addiction to technology has been hindering their ability to take action against injustice and so Black Starr has chosen to intervene. BiG SiSSY is an unlikely hero whose slutty ways interfere with her mission. I was lucky enough to produce the show with a team of Black queer folks and all the actors are trans or non-binary. This piece is my own Black queer future fantasy turned present reality.

Adam Barrett: Temple of the Divine Queer is a sort of staged dramaturgy for a larger piece I'm working on that explores queerness, religion and cults, and the way that ideas change over the long passage of time. The full-length play (called Fellowship and supported by Toronto Arts Council — thank you, taxpayers) is about two men in a very near future who fall in love and start a cult about it, and then sort of flashes forward to a very distant future where their cult has become the dominant religion in the world. I realized that to understand the cult the characters were starting in Fellowship, I needed to understand the religion it would eventually become. Temple is a staged version of that future religion.

From left: Juniper Brown, Athena Holmes and Eve Arienne in BiG SiSSY. (Valerie Bah)

Rhubarb is turning 40 with a lot of pieces that look forward, including all of yours. How does your work imagine the queer future?

AB: So, the piece lives in a not-precisely-stated-when future world where queerness has become a dominant religion in the world. In the piece we refer to a past event called "The Great Shift," which we imagine to be some moment when things (finally, maybe) change. In our queer future, not only are we free from oppression, but maybe we even have a history of oppression ourselves. We refer to cishets as being "distant from the Divine" and that we should forgive them for that — hate the sin and not the sinner. It's a bit of revenge-fantasy reversal, I guess, but also echoes the kind of garbage that happens at churches today. Our temple has room for all the letters in the alphabet and all the colours of the rainbow, and so we are imagining a queer future with, let's be real, considerably less infighting than today. We are imagining that there is a possible future where we celebrate the diversity within our otherness.

AS:  What we are working on crafting with this piece — and with the series in general — is a new form of storytelling in the theatre. How that ties in with queer futurism is in the progression of the methods in which our stories are told. To explain, here's a little backstory: my background is in theatrical production. It's what I studied in school; I have a degree in it and it's what informed my approach to this project. I wanted to tell this story in a way that I haven't seen before which eventually lead to the induction of technology as being the main driver of the narrative. By doing this, we are creating a new form for this inherently queer story to be told. 

AH: Black queer futurism is now. The future is the present if we want to see it for what it is.

A promotional image for Temple of the Divine Queer. (Trixie & Beever)

What do you personally want people to think more about when it comes to queer future/futurism?

AS: What's kept me sort of pondering on the idea of queer futurism is how this modern engagement between queer culture and the overarching, heteronormative society will affect the narrative of future queers. Queer culture in a lot of ways has stood as this counterculture to mainstream society, but we can all see that it's becoming another facet of popular culture. What's interesting to me is how this new relationship will be interpreted for characters that exist in the queer future. What aspects of the experience are different? What stays the same? What are we in for?

AH: When it comes to Black queer futures, I want people to think about the ways in which capitalism, white supremacy and patriarchy have dictated the constraints we live under, and how our actions contribute daily to the upholding of those systems. I want to people to shift their perspective — to be able to see that the rules we live under are in fact the things that are completely unnatural.

AB: I'm sick of binary sexuality existing as a central element of even the weirdo progressive hippy religions. I'm sick of progressive Abrahamic religions twisting and contorting to try and make room when their sacred texts are clear that me and my friends are haram. I'm sick of the Wicca and new age mantra stuff always asking us to honour the divine feminine and the divine masculine within ourselves, as if the union of two opposing forces is the only way to express divinity — as if the union between two sames is less than the union between two differents. I hope that in our queer future we stop letting people make room for us, and we start just taking up space on our own terms.

I hope that in our queer future, there's all of the acceptance and granting of rights and equality stuff that activists who are smarter than I am are fighting harder than I am to achieve (and have been for at least 40 years already, thankyouthankyouthankyou). But I also hope that we stop thinking about assimilation as the goal. I hope that we figure out that, yeah, sure, some of us want to get married and have kids, but for some of us queerness is about being other, and that's OK. I hope that we embrace otherness.

Andromeda Genesis β. (Ammanuel Solomon)

What do you hope the work at Rhubarb might look like in 40 more years?

AB: I realized a little while ago that the first Rhubarb I worked on was the 25th anniversary. I refuse to do the math there, but I know I was a wee baby queer and a second year acting student, working box office and front of house at Buddies — and it was amazing. I think it was the first time that I'd really experienced truly experimental theatre, the first time I'd really seen the kind of raw new work that is so much the fabric of Rhubarb. One of the things that I've always loved about Rhubarb is the enormous possibility of failure. Risky performances are more likely to fail than safe ones. I guess that's one of the reasons that the festival has maintained a policy of not having critics in attendance (or at least, not in attendance as critics...please, come to my show). I hope that never changes. I hope in 40 years Rhubarb is still a place for risk, and where failure is welcome.

I think/hope that in 40 years all the struggles that the theatre community is currently wrestling with around diversity and access will be sorted out. I think/hope that performances will all be interpreted for deaf audiences, or described for the blind. I think/hope that there will be more diverse bodies on our stages. Buddies and Rhubarb are and have always been a place that pushes the boundaries of diversity. What was acceptable diversity on stage 40 years ago is not enough today. What is acceptable today will not be enough in 40 years. And that's a good thing.

These interviews have been edited and condensed.

40th Rhubarb Festival. Feb 13-23. Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, Toronto. www.buddiesinbadtimes.com

About the Author

Peter Knegt has worked for CBC Arts since 2016, writing the LGBTQ-culture column Queeries (winner of the 2019 Digital Publishing Award for best digital column in Canada) and playing integral roles in the launch and production of series The Filmmakers and Canada's a Drag. Beyond CBC, Knegt is also a stand-up comedian, the filmmaker of numerous short films and the author of the book About Canada: Queer Rights. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter with the same obvious handle: @peterknegt.