“RiverShe Collective Arts: Queer Family Summer Sanctuary” is part religious revival, part variety show and part platform for the kind of quiet activism that emphasizes kindness over in-your-face confrontation—and does it all in a uniquely theatrical way. At first, it is a bit difficult to follow the trajectory of what the Collective has in store for this particular dramatic montage. As the performance unfolds, however, the revelations inherent in this production do become clearer.
We begin with a trio of musicians playing a variety of percussion instruments. The beats are mesmerizing and the talents of La Marvela—an all-women band that highlights Columbian Caribbean rhythms—are on full display as they prepare the audience for a journey of sorts. That journey involves, among other segments, an ancestral roll call, a Drag King show, and a thought-provoking series of poems, at least one with accompanying dance number.
…a whirlwind of a theatrical experience…With a bit of polishing…this really could be a wonderfully multifaceted and innovative take on queer theatre.
It’s a bit of a whirlwind of a theatrical experience. ‘Experience’ is the best way I can think to describe it. Not quite your usual stage fare, RiverShe’s production really does push the boundaries on this one in terms of how they define what “entertainment” means. Why do people go to the theatre in the first place, they seemingly ask. What can happen when conventional expectations are subverted?
In some ways, this Queer Family Summer Sanctuary does offer an escape. Audience members are encouraged to enter into moments of meditation, remembrance, and reimagining. Some of the more prominent questions asked, to be individually contemplated are: what does motherhood look like when you’re a lesbian? What does it really mean to accept your body fully and completely when others might have questions about the context of your body in a world that can be resistant to difference? How might history be rewritten if we knew the truth about people, behaviors, and attitudes?
Among the more notable moments in this production are Carmen Player’s “An Invitation to Freedom,” a highly spirited Drag King performance that blends the spiritual theme of the show with the more overt political nature that drag shows possess now; the completely raw “A Queer Anatomy” in which Richael Faithful unabashedly strips it down to who they are—heart, body and soul—as they walk the audience through the many “scars” which mark their physical and emotional self; and also quite memorable, particularly for its utter authenticity, is “Manifestations,” led by Faithful as they interview an audience volunteer, asking about that volunteer’s more affirming life moments, culminating in a heartfelt prayer and poem blessing the journey that lay ahead.
The show also features poetry readings presented in absentia. Admittedly, the emptiness of these readings—save for one that features an interpretive dance—seems a little bit of a letdown. Their impact would have been more emphatically felt had the creative team done more to bring to life the content of the pieces. With titles that include “Harriet Tubman is a Lesbian,” the intrigue value is certainly there and the chance to do something truly provocative seems a no-brainer.
If anything, I would say that the Queer Family Summer Sanctuary, while uplifting and as “from the heart” as anything I’ve thus far seen at Fringe, feels a little unfinished. Capital Fringe is a great opportunity to see what works and also to fill in some blanks, to further examine the “what ifs.” With a bit of polishing, some more cohesiveness in terms of how it all connects and a deeper exploration of the production’s current gaps, this really could be a wonderfully multifaceted and innovative take on queer theatre.
Running time: One hour and 15 minutes with no intermission.
“RiverShe Collective Arts: Queer Family Summer Sanctuary” runs July 20, 22 and 23 at Theater J, 1529 16th Street NW, Washington, DC 20036. For more information and tickets for the show, go online. For more information and tickets for the festival which runs through July 23, 2023, go to the Capital Fringe website.