February 17, 2022

A Queer Community Waiting to Be Found in Goodreau’s THE THING THEY LOVE

by Felicia Cheney

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by Joey Phoenix

An alluring drama about trust, gender, love, and money, Goodreau’s The Thing They Love takes inspiration from Mae West’s 1927 dramatization, The Drag. Set in prohibition-era New York City, a big, queer family assembles with familiar yet complicated problems. They must navigate the difference between the world they love, and the world outside their doorstep by learning to protect each other. Ultimately the consequences of deception puts their family, old and new, in jeopardy. 

For the first time in the school’s history, Salem State University is producing a play written by a university alum. The world premiere of The Thing They Love, written by 2021 BFA graduate Parker Goodreau (they/them/theirs) and directed by adjunct professor Esme Allen (she/her/hers) will have live performances from March 3 – March 6 and online streaming available March 20 – April 30. 

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“To me, this play is about people figuring out how to be themselves and find family and community amidst a world of fear, uncertainty, and condemnation,” said Allen. “But the play is also about how we grapple with our own inner hang ups and demons, addressing themes of gender identity, sexuality and socio-economic disparity.”

The Thing They Love – which pulls from source material like Mae West’s The Drag and other prohibition era LGBTQIA2+ literature, strives to highlight the rich time in New York City history where the underground queer community didn’t just exist, but was thriving.

It’s no coincidence that Goodreau’s work is the first by an alum to be produced by the school. In 2018, Salem State launched its new playwriting program within the theatre department, from which Goodreau was the first to graduate in 2021. 

“I did not start at Salem State thinking I was going to be in the playwriting program, it was so new that I didn’t really know it existed when I applied,” remembered Goodreau. “I initially chose to attend Salem State because they had a really good theater program, and as a New Englander, they were close to my basis of operations. So it ended up being just kismet.” 

“[SSU’s theatre department] has made moves to be more topical with the content that they produce, not just for the educational value but also to empower students to to bring their own work and perspective to the stage,” said Kati Nalbandian (she/her/hers), Project Manager at the Center for Creative and Performing Arts at Salem State. 

LGBTQ+ Representation in Theatre isn’t a recent phenomenon, just recently acknowledged

Goodreau’s research during the writing of this play took them down some fascinating rabbit holes in regards to just how many queer peformers and performances have faced erasure throughout history. While Goodreau had a “vague notion” about drag performance existing in the 1800s and even earlier, it was really Mae West’s The Drag which helped synthesize the information for them. 

Drag Icon Mae West

“[The Drag] seemed to lean heavily on people in the community for source material, not just to add authenticity to the play but also as collaborators in the writing. The language and the ideas really seemed like they were coming from the people,” Goordreau described. “It gave this sense of scale as if history had been hidden.” 

Allen and Goodreau – both members of the Greater Boston LGBTQIA2+ theatre community – met for the first time in Allen’s Communications class in which Goodreau was a student, but the two really clicked during the production of She Kills Monsters (written by Qui Nguyen) in March of 2019. She Kills Monsters is a show which Goodreau described as “queer coded,” noting that the lesbian character they performed as has since been adapted into a transgender character approved by Nguyen in more recent virtual productions. 

But Allen was drawn to direct The Thing They Love not just because of her connection to Parker or her love of mid 20th century American history, but for reasons of her own. 

“I identify in the queer community. I’m a gay woman married to a woman with a baby. And I know that my whole lifestyle and the way that I live wouldn’t have been possible in the early 30s,” she explained. “I felt that this story, which is quite compelling, and powerful, and brave, needs to be told even now 90 years later.” 

It wasn’t uncommon in those times for women in Allen’s position to have been harassed, or worse, arrested for being queer. Records show that between 1923 and 1966, upwards of 50,000 queer individuals were arrested in New York City alone, and it appears that they only counted the men. 

Notably, blueswoman and performer Ma Rainey was arrested in her house in Harlem in 1925 for having a lesbian party, and Mae West famously spent 8 days in jail after a raid during the production of her show “Sex” in 1927. 

For both Allen and Goodreau, well-rounded and open queer representation in theatre is a recent development, one that they are incredibly excited to help strengthen, build, and develop in their own careers. LGBTQIA2+ people have always been present in society, and the more visible they become through representation, the easier it will be for community members to find their family. 

“At its heart, The Thing They Love is a family play and a play about queer community. And it’s a nod to that conjunction which was so prevalent at the time that life is a party, but it’s a terrible party.” Goodreau added. “If I had given this play a one word title, it would have been ‘ties,” because of the relationships and the ties that people create between each other in these communities.” 

The Thing They Love will have live performances (runtime is approximately 1 hour and 35 minutes) from March 3 – March 6 and online streaming available March 20 – April 30.  Visit https://salemstatetickets.universitytickets.com/ for more information and tickets for the show. 

Joey Phoenix (they/them) is an interdisciplinary artist, the Director of Brand Strategy and Innovation at Creative Collective, and a proud member of the New England LGBTQIA2+ community. As the resident storyteller and town crier, they encourage you to send story ideas, inspiration, or pictures of adorable critters to joeyphoenix@creativecollectivema.com.

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