Queer artists, activists, and advocates push boundaries
We often find ourselves inhabiting creative spaces where just BEING an artist doesn’t cut it. Fair or unfair, people expect us to advocate — to influence hearts and minds in particular ways. I sat down yesterday with two ground-breaking artists to talk about King Ester, the award-winning web series that’s burning up the festival circuit. I wanted to explore how art and activism intersect for the creative team.
Have you seen ‘King Ester’ yet?
The series follows the life of a poor, Black transgender woman struggling to break into the entertainment world in New Orleans — the week before Hurricane Katrina strikes. When the evacuation order goes out, she faces a stark choice. The series stars Rowin Amone, Pose’s Angelica Ross, and Fresh Prince of Bel Air’s Janet Hubert.
Metaphor for the trans/queer artist experience
The series captivated me, hooked me from the first few moments of the first episode. But one scene from episode 3 really stands out. Rowin Amone as Ester just had a TERRIBLE audition. The casting director asks her why she even bothered to try out for the part of a tall, beautiful blonde woman.
“If I’m ever in the mood for a short, untalented, ugly boy, I’ll give you a call, K?”
Rowin, a transgender woman with plenty of her own memories of rejection, OWNS that scene. You can see the dart sink in and the poison of the words shake her. But only for half a heartbeat. Then she lifts her head high and simmers with dignity.
When the scene cuts to the exterior of the audition hall, we see Ester again, standing behind an iron fence, looking in at the people who just rejected her. She recites her audition lines to them so powerfully and she glows with so much beauty that I shivered the first time I saw it. Part of me wanted to stand up and shout, “You go, girl!”
On the outside looking in
Isn’t that how it feels sometimes for us LGBTQ folks? We stand outside that fence and hold our heads high, knowing we’ve got what it takes. Determined to prove it! But how? Isn’t that what advocacy and activism are all about? That’s what I asked Rowin and Dui Jarrod who executive produced, wrote and directed Ester.
But now I know that I have a duty to my community, to the Black trans community to represent us well every chance that I get.
I expected to meet a pair of outstanding artists who thought of themselves in dual roles — as both artist and activist. Instead, I found myself in a conversation with two passionate artists who are so intensively focused on their craft that activism is secondary. Maybe a byproduct of the artistic process.
Like all artists, they’re intent on showcasing humanity
Rowin succeeds spectacularly! She brings Ester to life as a young trans woman not very far along in her transition. Ester is beautiful, but like so many queer people, she doesn’t feel it. She can’t ‘pass’, so she seems to question her worth. But she refuses to let self doubt slow her down. She’ll do ANYTHING, including survival sex work that turns humiliating, to chase her dream.
Rowin makes that all so real that it hurts to watch sometimes. You cheer her on even as you clench your teeth and squeeze your eyes shut to block out the pain. Is Rowin an activist? Is it fair to ASK her to be one? Dui says no, but more on that in a minute.
Nobody watching Rowin’s work could doubt that she moves hearts. Her vulnerability and genuine humanity shine. Isn’t that activism? She seems torn between her dual roles, saying that at first she wasn’t about advocacy in her art. “But now I know that I have a duty to my community, to the Black trans community to represent us well every chance that I get.”
Meet Dui Jarrod: pure, driven artist
Dui Jarrod conceived, wrote, produced, and directed King Ester.
He’s a Brooklyn-based screenwriter, director, and playwright whose award winning Brooklyn. Blue. Sky. was the first web series BET.com acquired.
He says his work focuses on the power of human connection in the landscape of modern America.
Is HE an activist or an advocate? Frankly, I went into the interview with some preconceived notions. Having studied his body of work, I expected to meet a passionate advocate who uses art to create conversation and effect change. (Maybe I was looking in the mirror?)
Instead, I met a laser-focused artist
Dui is passionate, all right. About telling stories! He shares that with Rowin, who he describes as another story teller. I had some careful questions lined up for him about the trans/queer artistic experience, narrative expectations in the queer activist community, and about the intersection of art and activism.
But Dui educated me by shooting those questions down. Oh, he didn’t dismiss me. But his answers taught me something. For Dui, ART is about ART. About being true to his vision. About telling stories that illustrate common humanity. He says he’s used to criticism and doesn’t mind it. “It is what it is.” As long as he’s being real, as long as he’s being authentic and true to his subject matter, then he lets advocacy take a back seat.
I think a lot of people assume that because of this work that I’m also an activist. And I’m not. I’m a storyteller. Rowin and I both are storytellers. I’m a writer/director. I struggle too with that. I’m getting a lot of calls to speak and talk. And I don’t know if I’m the person that should be speaking and talking to the trans community. I feel like I need to be talking to the cis community about ‘this is how you support,’ ‘this is how you don’t marginalize.’
Is storytelling activism?
What is activism, anyway? As an old-school HIV/queer activist who used to march in the street with Act Up NYC and Queer Nation, I soaked up a particular form of activism. I learned that moving hearts and minds means getting focused messages out to people who can hear them. I learned that stories matter but so does staying “on message.”
In my activism these days, I focus on what that message is and then ask myself who can hear it. How can I best reach the people whose hearts are READY for the message? I’m an activist/advocate first and a storyteller second. Or at least that’s how I THINK of myself.
If I haven’t completely misunderstood Rowin and Dui, they come at things from the other way around. They tell stories first. Storytellers is who they are inside their hearts. It’s how they define themselves to themselves.
When Rowin brings Ester to life, she’s sharing a story in such an intimate, powerful way that hearts have to move with her whether they want to or not. When creative lightning strikes Dui and he conceives of a screenplay and then gives birth to it, he’s telling stories that touch and stir the common humanity in ALL of us — cis, trans, gay, straight. It doesn’t matter.
Hell yes, that’s advocacy. Hell yes, it’s activism.
Rowin and Dewey reach people by focusing on their art. By touching something universal in all of us. I called Dui a pure artist. But isn’t touching people like that pure activism too?
I think so. I think nobody could watch King Ester and not come to love and respect Ester. At least a little. Probably a lot. And that’s what activism boils down to. At its innermost heart. Fostering love and cultivating empathy.
Are you looking to make a difference fighting for full LGBTQ equality? Why not watch King Ester and let Rowin and Dui show you a road worth taking?
James Finn is a long-time LGBTQ activist, an alumnus of Act Up NYC, an essayist occasionally published in queer news outlets, and an “agented” novelist. He has no affiliate or personal connection to ‘King Ester’, its producers, or creative team. Send questions, comments, and story ideas to email@example.com.