NJPAC debut for the first time in Newark, She Likes Girls, a play base on the true story of Sakia Gunn (May 26, 1987 – May 11, 2003) a 15-year old African American lesbian who was murdered in a hate crime in Newark, New Jersey.
Playwright and Newark native Chisa Hutchinson was inspired to write the story. It was a full three years after the fact when Ms. Hutchinson heard the tragic incident. It’s because the confrontation was so underreported, coupled with Hutchinson’s location at the time in Pennsylvania, where she was teaching at a Quaker boarding school. A student of dramatic writing at New York University, the playwright’s past works have tackled topics about race, urban poverty and baby theft. As a youth, a foster mom in Newark, and that geographic bond raised the Queens native.
The murder occurred on the night of May 11, 2003, Gunn was returning from a night out in Greenwich Village, with her friends. While waiting for the #1 New Jersey Transit bus at the corner of Broad and Market Streets in downtown Newark, Gunn and her friends were propositioned by two African American men. When the girls rejected their advances, by declaring themselves to be lesbians, the men attacked them. Gunn fought back, and one of the men, Richard McCullough, stabbed her in the chest. Both men immediately fled the scene in their vehicle. After one of Gunn’s friends flagged down a passing driver, she was taken to nearby University Hospital, where she died.
Richard McCullough, an African American man, was charged with her death and sentenced to 20 years in prison. McCullough, who turned himself in to authorities several days later, was arrested in connection with the crime on May 16, 2003.In a plea bargain, the murder charges were dropped and, on March 3, 2005, McCullough pleaded guilty to aggravated manslaughter, aggravated assault, and bias intimidation, claiming, at one point, that Gunn died after she “ran into his knife”. On April 21, 2005, he was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
The play takes place from the perspective of the 15-year-old coming into her sexuality. And carefully written in such a way as not preclude the young ladies as being gay, but rather finding her true love regardless to the sexuality of the partner. The play is fast moving, and featured strong adult language, but flows and was appropriate with the demographic. ”I was affected by the fact that she died just getting comfortable with who she was,” Hutchinson adds. “It was all snuffed out.” Hutchinson says that the murder in the final scene made it challenging to get the play produced. “I would get asked, ‘Does she have to get shot in the end?’ Uh, yeah. Kind of,” she says, determined not to shy away from the story’s painful lesson.
In the play Sakia Gunn character is named Kia Clark played by Najah Johnson, a student at an inner-city high school who is startled to learn that her sexy, outgoing crush, Marisol Feliciano played by Annalisa Velez, is a lesbian. Michelle Morgan played Kia Clark’s mother. They begin a sweetly awkward teen romance—under the watchful eyes of homophobic classmates, skeptical friends, horrified parents and one supportive gay teacher—and become more and more emboldened, until the drama’s unsurprisingly tragic conclusion.
If the play can bring people”a heightened sense of sympathy,” Hutchinson willconsider it successful. “That’s all I ask,” she says.
After the play a panel discussion followed, moderator was Darnell Moore (DM), Playwright/author Chisa Hutchinson (CH), and director Rodney Gilbert (RG).
DM :What motivated you to write the play? Particularly what did you do to bring to life, the life of a young black, and brown lesbian that is living in urban spaces and what did you do to include of this in the play.
CH: I was teaching high school English in eastern Pennsylvania, when I heard of Sakia young death. And it was three years after fact, which blew my face off. Since I grew up in Newark, my family still lived in Newark, and I heard nothing about it. They heard nothing about it. And I heard about from a round about source. I was so angry about it that I thought was nothing I could do but write about it. So I wrote the play, and I tried to show the play for 6 years. The sense was that folks were scared to put on the play, so it ended up being performed in New York. As far as how I developed the character, to paint the picture. The answer was I grew up in Newark. Just thinking about people I knew. I know, still know, in Newark gay and lesbian. And just trying to understand their experiences, with teachers, and classmate as changing, engaging and evolving in their sexuality, I just imagine this period to be excruciating.
DM: Rodney I am interested in your perspective in directing, exceptional talented young professional actors. You have done work for over 3 decades. What specifically about this play, that you found either to be challenging or an act of pride, since you mentioned to me a play actors of color address issues, that are impacting people of color.
RG: She is an African American playwright. And when you think of an African American playwright everyone heard whom do you think of Lorraine Hansberry. Unless you are a theater buff you don’t know another one. So a friend of mine said that he had a friend that is a writer, and she wrote a play. She’s from Newark. And I said what. I want the play. Give me the play. Because she is of color, and then she worked at NJPAC momentarily. I thought how do we salute playwright from Newark. Who is of color, which wrote about someone from Newark and then when I read the script, and the language, you know. Actors are good, but if it’s a great script. Well you know. And it worked; the language in the script is wonderful. We worked 5 hours today, and put this together. I worked with some of the leads alone. But we really have been together for only 5 hours. It’s a testament to the language of what was written, and for it to come from a black voice. For those of you here that are actors, there are actors of color, and to speak the language, and then it touches an issue, this is a big issue here in Newark. I am not afraid to say it. They killed Sakia 10 years ago. You can get killed now, today, on Broad and Market. You know for various reasons, but particularly for being gay and outspoken. I recall hearing that kids were killing themselves on account of their sexuality. So it opens a whole door to me. The story is package and arranged very nicely.
DM: I want to acknowledge Sakia sister in the audience. Bring Sakia ‘s name and presence to this space, to honor her life, and her legacy, which is really important, and names of so many other black and brown LGBT folks, who’s name do not show up in newspapers. Who died in silence and invisibly .It is important that this happened in Newark. This is a pack house. And I would love for you to address, I know this play has been performed in many spaces. But to bring it home to Newark, down the street from where our young sister’s life was taken away from her. If both you could speak about what it means to you to bring this play to Newark.
CH: Of course it means a lot. The fact that you are setting in the audience means everything. Again I grew up here. I never really thought about LGBT issues, I was boy crazy, so I really didn’t think about it, until I got to college. Where I had some though discussion with my Mom. I was a theater major and I am reading “Angels in America”, and I will never forget. There is a character in Angels in America, who is Mormon and gay. He is dealing of course with the conflict that comes with that. And my Mom, asked me about this character. Does he win? What do you mean does he win, I replied. Does he win against his demons? Then I said OH!!. And everything shifted for me from that moment. And made me rethink a lot of experiences. I had growing up here. So I had to go back and re-examine. So I see this play as a magnifying glass for all I missed around me. Bring this play here really means a lot to me.
RG: To have theater in Newark is major. We had various theater companies when I was growing up in Newark theater voice. And it covered social, economic issues, and moral. But when you look at sexuality of people of color. Those are issues that we don’t talk about. The theater here spoke to that. Arts is Newark, are focused on the visual arts, and symphonies, but very little on theater. So I thank NJPAC for having us, to have a platform to talk about just one of the many issues we have in our community.