Celebrating Pride in an Unprecedented Year

By Jean-Robert Andre, Dean of Equity and Inclusion, and Susan Sterman-Jones, Theater

What does Pride look like when our city’s world-famous parade and celebrations can’t happen?  Students of the Middle School C.H.A.N.G.E group (Challenging Hate and Norms of Gender Expression) asked themselves that very question at this and last year’s Pride Chapels, held annually at the end of the year. There’s no doubt that these last two Pride months have been characteristically different from what we’re used to. Two years ago, New York hosted World Pride in honor of the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising, and Grace Church School families and teachers marched in the parade for the 3rd year in a row. That summer, LGBTQ+ leaders and organizations made a concerted effort to remind us of the roots of the “modern gay rights movement” that Stonewall catalyzed: that the uprising was in response to police violence, and that transgender people of color led the resistance. Names like Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson gained a well deserved spotlight for their contributions to ensuring that what would become the Christopher Street Liberation Day march represented the rainbow of identities that make up the LGBTQ+ community.  

Little did we know that these efforts around representation and uplifting voices of color would be central to the conversations we’d have in the summer of 2020 when demonstrations for racial justice and an end to police violence gained national attention. Embedded in the Movement for Black lives was the acknowledgment that black identities span all genders and sexualities, and that statistically the most vulnerable populations are Black and brown transgender folks. June of last year saw thousands show up to the first Brooklyn Liberation March for Black Trans Lives, and instead of a traditional pride march on the last Sunday in June, people from all over New York masked up and took to the streets for the Queer Liberation March in solidarity with Black Lives Matter. The victims of transphobia, homophobia, and racism were honored alongside the unsung heroes of the LGBTQ+ movement.

As our school year and hybrid classes began in the fall amidst these national conversations, students and faculty, including members of C.H.A.N.G.E, recognized the increased importance of community, and the continued need to make our school a more inclusive place for all. Our little club had work to do! Our Pride Chapel theme this year was “We’re Still Here!” and in it, we highlighted the many ways C.H.A.N.G.E continued its work within the middle school despite the challenges of the year.  

C.H.A.N.G.E selling masks in support of GMHC (img. source: Ms. Capelle-Burny)
  • We still held weekly meetings on Zoom and, sometimes, in person.
  • We held our annual Ally Week fundraiser selling Rainbow Griffin masks in the play yard.  Proceeds went to the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, as comparisons between the trajectory of the Coronavirus treatment and that of the AIDS epidemic sparked important discussion.
  • We attended a virtual meet and greet sponsored by the Trinity School MS Gender and Sexuality Alliance to connect Middle School GSAs across the city, and met others doing similar work in their institutions.
  • We organized our annual LGBT Center visit which was virtual for the second year in a row, with Youth Services Coordinator, Joanna McClintick, teaching us about the history of the building and her work with LGBTQ+ young people.
  • We hosted Anastasia Higginbotham, author of What You Don’t Know: A Story of Liberated Childhood, to talk about what it means to feel supported and affirmed in your identities and did a workshop around collaging based on the illustrations in her book.
A student poses with a collage made during Anastasia Higginbotham’s visit (img. source: Ms. Sterman-Jones)

In addition to these wonderful projects, this year also meant the return of our biennial Visibility Photography Exhibit. Over the history of the four exhibits we’ve put together, we’ve experimented with different ways to educate the Grace Community in addition to celebrating the LGBTQ+ loved ones with which our families and staff choose to submit pictures. In 2016, we had a concurrent display next to the photo exhibit paralleling the history of Grace Church School with the history of the LGBTQ+ rights movement. The next year we asked community members to submit photos of changemakers in their lives or the broader movement that they knew. Throughout that year’s exhibit, we interspersed photos of activists, organizers, and influential queer people who’ve made a difference in their communities. We knew we would have to hold this year’s exhibit virtually, so we thought long and hard about how to engage our school community over zoom, and lucky for us, a family connection gave us a great idea! Jennifer Baumgardner, middle school parent and publisher, connected us to Rachel Aimee, the Executive Director of Drag Queen Story Hour, an organization that celebrates reading through the glamorous art of drag and that creates diverse, accessible, and culturally inclusive family programming where kids can express their authentic selves. Grace parents, teachers, and students were treated to a digital version of the photo exhibit, with a soundtrack provided by our very own vocalist, Andrew Leonard. We were then joined by Rachel, Mor Erlich and drag queen Cholula Lemon, to talk about their organization. Cholula  and led the audience in a read aloud, and fun and, child-centered activities of coming up with our own drag names, before reading a picture book about acceptance.

The 2018 Visibility Exhibit

We’re incredibly proud of the impact C.H.A.N.G.E and our high school counterpart, Spectrum, have had on the Grace Church School community since their respective inceptions, and we also recognize that there’s always more work to be done. 2021 saw a record number of anti-transgender bills, most directly impacting students and young people, limiting access to services like health care and athletic programs. As students of C.H.A.N.G.E and Grace Church School stated during Pride Chapel, “we are still fighting for full acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community, as well as racial and gender equality, access to good healthcare for all and improved public education so that we may see an end to poverty and homelessness in our future.” We are committing to social justice and equality for all. What will you commit to this Pride Month and beyond?

A Guide to Getting Through (and making it safely to the other side)

By Sabrina Jacob Washburn, Drama

The return of live theater is just around the corner. I read this morning that “Pass Over,” a modern riff on “Waiting for Godot” that explores race and class written by Antoinette Nwandu, will open on Broadway as early as August 4. The Public Theater is set to open its Shakespeare in the Park program soon, and many of my friends and family members are eagerly buying up tickets to shows slated to re-open throughout the fall. And, hallelujah! Many of my out-of-work actor friends are being called back to their jobs with renewed hope. New York is thirsty (dehydrated!) for live performance, and I predict its return will be as thrilling as we all imagine.

Nothing can beat the feeling of sitting in a dark space with other people, all focused on one electric moment together. It is said that audience members’ heartbeats synchronize when watching a live performance. Certainly, the experience of an ensemble of performers, technicians, and creative leaders coming together under one goal can be life-changing and long-lasting, no matter how brief or liminal the process. The high school theater company is all-too familiar with this notion, having found deep bonds and emotional connections to one another through shows like “Rent” and “As You Like It.” When the prospect of giving up this process to the pandemic for the second school year, a process that is found in the long and dark hours backstage during tech week and while covered in sawdust during strike, I wondered how Grace Theatre Company would survive. How can we continue to build these relationships and strengthen our identity as a company through the tedious and choppy nature of Zoom?

“We can’t do another Zoomsical,” I remember telling Andrew Leonard, our musical director. As successful as our Into the Woods pivot was last year, I could not envision asking our students to embark on yet another Zoom-reimagined project. They were ready for something else, something more personal and connected. So, we set out to make a movie musical, one we could rehearse on Zoom for safety purposes, but then film live on set together (with proper protocols) in order to gain a sense of that “normal” production experience everyone so desired. After some deliberation, we created A Guide to Getting Through, a musical revue featuring scenes and songs from various contemporary musicals that showcase characters finding their way through difficult moments. I also wanted to feature New York City as a symbol of our greater community’s ability to pull through the last year of sadness and uncertainty with the classic “New York tough” resiliency that I also see in so many of my students. So, we set the scenes in various locations all around Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn and New Jersey.

This project was certainly ambitious. None of us on the leadership team are experienced filmmakers and there was a steep learning curve as we prepared to launch into a fast and furious shoot week in April. The universe wasn’t necessarily giving us a generous helping hand most days, either. Between rain, COVID cases in the cast, forgotten props, dying batteries, dealing with crowds in Washington Square Park, and general exhaustion, we sometimes wondered how we would pull through. Additionally, I am currently living in Los Angeles and was unable to travel to NYC for the film shoot. This resulted in “Sab-on-a-stick,” a cheeky name for the device set-up that allowed me to direct the shoot over FaceTime. Needless to say, we fought our way through some significant challenges and the show became our own guide to getting through that week.

It is these challenges, however, that actually gave us exactly what we were looking for. Cast and crew members leaning on one another and troubleshooting together brought us back to those intimate backstage moments we were craving. Long production days meant sharing meals outdoors in between calls. Last minute issues meant people had to pitch in and take on tasks they didn’t know they were capable of. In addition to making a show we were all very proud of, students and faculty alike found new aspects of themselves and their relationships that will remain strong after the show closes and the world opens up.

We wrapped up the process with a pajama-themed premiere for the cast and crew in the high school gym, followed by a closing cast party in a sunny backyard. It was clear from the cheers and tears that Grace Theatre Company has endured the many shake-ups of the last year with the same passion and adventurous spirit that has defined us in years past. Here’s to moving forward knowing that, together, we can accomplish anything we set our minds to.