Homework and heartstrings

BENJI It’s hard to concentrate on Pre-Calc homework, because you’re in that class with me, and college and differential equations just can’t compete.

— Budgeting Better

For Kenny and Benji, hours studying pre-calc and trig turn the boys from “study buddies” to boyfriends. And tonight in rehearsal, a practical question about how to get their piles of math homework offstage turned into a moment of ’90s nostalgia when we discovered that some of the under-30s in the room didn’t know what a Trapper Keeper was.

Trappers

Vintage Trapper Keepers

The Trapper Keeper was the rare school supply that was both functional and expressional. A three-ring binder that contained “trapper folders,” this all-in-one notebook, binder, and folder allowed students to travel light to class by switching out folders and then take everything home at night in one easy-to-carry package. But best of all, Trapper Keepers came in loads of funky colors with all sorts of designs, from dogs and cats to space aliens to Ninja Turtles. I imagine a Trapper Keeper with George Michael on it would be the height of ’90s cool.

According to propsmistress Molly, there’s something of a “cult” of Trapper Keeper collectors and fanatics, and a vintage Trapper Keeper in good condition can go for over $50 on Ebay. For the uninitiated, Mental Floss has a surprisingly extensive case study of the history and nostalgia factor of Trappers here. One aficianado compared Trapper Keepers to Smartphones: they were “the greatest three-ring binder ever created … Trapper Keepers—the way they combined all of one’s desktop tools—were an early incarnation of the smartphone.”

It was fun to be able to show your personality through the binder that you had. You don’t really remember a notebook or the pens and pencils you used. But maybe you remember your [Trapper Keeper]. The binder wasn’t a regular school product. When you got it, it was almost like a Christmas present. You were excited to have it.

— Peter Bartlett, Director of Product Innovation for AACO Brands, a producer of Trapper Keepers

Lisa Frank

This one’s cool no matter what decade.

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Sneak peek!

Peter and Stephanie on our education team have been hard at work creating a curricular connections packet for local schools, focusing on homelessness among LGBTQ youth and costume design as an extension of character. Here’s a teaser before it goes live on the C1 websiteEd Packet

The power of a good story

American Theatre Magazine must love us because they talk about us all the time! Check out a profile of Rey and his new play AFTER ALL THE TERRIBLE THINGS I DO, which will make its New England premiere this month with our friends over at the Huntington Theatre Company. The article focuses on Rey’s use of storytelling in the play, and two things really stick out in relationship to EDITH.

“When you see plays by people of color or by people who are queer, a lot of times the play is about race or about sexuality—but in the stuff I write, it’s not that those elements are ever absent, but that’s just not usually what the play is about. It’s just a significant aspect of the action.”

First, this quote by Rey expresses much of what we find compelling about EDITH — that Edith, Kenny, and Benji happen to be many things (young, queer, neglected, Filipino, Midwestern, nerds, a crack shot) and that all these things are part of their identities without becoming their sole identity. This gives the characters a richness and authenticity that we love, but also sparks debate. For example, at our first vision meeting for EDITH, the artistic team discussed why we are drawn to Rey’s work. When discussing Kenny and Benji’s love story, some felt that the experience was especially true to modern teens and their emotions surrounding coming out. Others felt that the relationship was slightly unrealistic and rose-colored, arguing that two boys coming out in the ’90s in a rural area would probably experience much more difficulty and bullying than Kenny and Benji actually experience in the play. Both of these points of view are totally valid, and a strength of Rey’s writing is that he doesn’t ask us to choose sides but rather to be “open and earnest” and see the world through the young people’s eyes.

edith7

Second, the article pulls out Rey’s intricate storytelling in his work as well as his questioning of the stories people tell and how they impose narratives on their lives to make sense of events or emotions that they maybe don’t fully understand. One of the things that stands out to me when putting EDITH and AFTER ALL THE TERRIBLE THINGS… in conversation with each other is that the two plays explore very different ways of using stories. In EDITH, we watch Kenny, Benji, and Edith live out all the high, lows, and in-betweens of being kids figuring things out for the first time while they comfort themselves with stories of gnomes, flying girls, and shapeshifting comic book men; in AFTER ALL, we watch adult characters who have the benefit of hindsight try to make sense of their pasts and the experiences with which young people grapple.

Poster for the premiere production of AFTER ALL THE TERRIBLE THINGS I DO at Mixed Blood in Minneapolis

Poster for the premiere production of AFTER ALL THE TERRIBLE THINGS I DO at Milwaukee Rep

Culture clash

“You’ve tried to seduce me with dictionary definitions, research about the Philippines, and theoretical calculus.”

Kenny to Benji, Space Is Infinite

Those who, like Benji, prefer to seduce with an assist from cultural research, might find some of these resources helpful.

The Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service has archived its 2012 exhibit “Singgalot: The Ties That Bind,” which explored the history of Filipinos in America and celebrated the intersection of American and Filipino culture in subsequent generations. The archive contains images and stories of Filipino-Americans, some of whom were unfamiliar with their own history due to pressure to assimilate quickly into an “American” lifestyle. In the New York Times feature on the exhibit, Joey Tabaco, a Queens, NY native whose parents emigrated from the Philippines, is quoted as saying, “Back in the 1950s and ’60s, your job as a kid was to assimilate. There were no meeting places for Filipinos.” First-generation children like him were “basically American” but “trying to learn about their heritage.”

Tagalogue, a New York City-based organization, holds an annual festival featuring performances by Filipino-American artists. The name is a play on Tagalog — one of the mothertongues of the Philippines — and dialogue/monologue. “These are OUR stories, voices, and experiences used to educate, inspire and remind others that they are NOT alone.  It is a movement set to empower and unite our community,” the mission states. Below is a video of performer Philippe Garcesto speaking about his relationship with his mother, and an archive of videos from the last three years can be found on the Tagalogue site.

Bonus video of Dr. Kevin Nadal who, in his spare time from teaching psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice AND running the City University’s Center for LGBQT Studies, performs stand-up comedy. In this video, he pays homage to the solid storytelling in ’90s pop music.

(Dr. Nadal has also performed two one-man shows about growing up gay and Filipino and has written on the Filipino experience as well as on microaggression and the LGBQT community. To use a ’90s turn of phrase, he’s all that!)

Ch-ch-changes

When you’re a teenager, sometimes the right song, book, or movie has the power to change your world. As Kenny and Benji begin to realize that they are more than just friends, they use the underground comic book SHADE THE CHANGING MAN as a touchstone for their burgeoning relationship.

Shade_the_Changing_Man_001 Shade Kathy Lenny

SHADE is more than just a random comic book from the 1990s. This dark, subversive story was one of the first comic books to explore transgender issues and same-sex romance, and its story arcs surrounding creating your own family, struggling with identity, and traveling across an America rife with larger-than-life dangers resonate with EDITH.

Like EDITH, SHADE THE CHANGING MAN follows a trio of young people. The eponymous Shade is an alien from the planet Meta sent to America to battle the American Scream, a madness born out of consumerism and greed enveloping the country. As his name suggests, Shade can shift form, using a powerful garment called the M-Vest. Shade teams up with Kathy George, a young girl whose parents have been murdered by a deranged killer. Later, the two meet cool, collected Lenny. She serves as a protector and voice of reason for the fragile Kathy, and later, she and Kathy begin a relationship. The two try to keep their relationship a secret, but Shade discovers it in the issue that Kenny references, when Shade manifests as a blanket on which the two girls have sex. Later, needing a new body as host but also jealous of Lenny, Shade takes the shape of a woman, and manages to sleep with both women. Though his body is female, Shade still retains the mindset of a man. When Kathy discovers his deception, she abandons him, though the two eventually reconcile.

The original 1977 version of Shade, before his Vertigo makeover

The original 1977 version of Shade, before his Vertigo makeover

SHADE was originally created for DC Comics in 1977 by Steve Ditko. The series only lasted eight issues — in that time, Shade was given new parents because his first set failed the parenting exam. At age 13, Shade was given an operation that made him a rational adult. These tidbits live on in Edith’s made-up story about her multi-parented home planet and battle with “evil, shape-changing aliens.” Perhaps Edith has copies of the original comic stashed away in the barn?

Peter Milligan's Shade, the Changing Man

Peter Milligan’s Shade, the Changing Man

The Shade story arc that Kenny and Benji reference launched in 1990, when British comic writer Peter Milligan appropriated Ditko’s character, turning him into a much darker, tortured character. Shade’s M-Vest became the Madness Vest and gave Shade the power to warp reality as well as change shape. The original 1977 storyline was explained away as a story Shade made up to entertain himself while traveling to Earth. (We can see why Edith likes this guy!)

Milligan’s SHADE took on much edgier content. Shade required a human host for his travels on Earth, so he inhabited the body of recently-executed serial killer Troy Grenzer — the man who had killed Kathy George’s parents. Throughout the series, Kathy and Shade both struggle with madness and delusions because of their traumatic experiences, and this alternately bonds them and tests their relationship. Milligan used SHADE to critique what he saw as a vacuous, commercial American culture; The American Scream manifests as a skeleton dressed like Uncle Sam, and his victims’ private insanities are turned into reality. Benji’s Mom definitely wouldn’t want Benji reading about Shade’s adventures against the Scream, which include a re-enactment of the John F. Kennedy assassination; a battle against a possessed Hollywood film camera; a mission quieting the delusions of a man filling New York City with trash to protest “the Nameless” (homeless people and vagabonds); and the prevention of a man torturing those he sees as “abnormal” by running them through a horrific “normalcy machine.” A unique feature of Milligan’s comics, illustrated by Chris Bachalo, is the use of a bright, neon 90s color palette, despite the horror and violence of the stories.

Probably no one would mind if Edith shot the American Scream

Probably no one would mind if Edith shot the American Scream

Though SHADE remained a niche comic book, readers clearly had a taste for its dark, edgy content. In 1993, DC editor (and totally rad lady) Karen Berger created an imprint of DC called Vertigo, which featured comics geared toward mature readers that tackled heavy themes. The SHADE comics made the switch to the Vertigo brand in Issue #33 and were part of the “British invasion” that found a creative home with Vertigo. Other popular titles included the work of British writers Neil Gaiman and Grant Morrison, with SANDMAN and ANIMAL MAN, respectively, as well as the comics of American writer Alan Moore.

In the early 90s, Kenny would have had to go out of his way to find the SHADE comics. Even today, the seventy issues have not been collected into one volume, and it takes a bit of Internet digging to find all the issues in the series. The presence of the comic in EDITH speaks to its young characters’ determination to find a story that expresses who they are. Kenny shares his comics with Benji, and Benji shares his dictionary definitions with Kenny. Edith makes up her own stories. As we explore the stories that are important to Edith, Kenny, and Benji, we wonder what other stories and pop culture hit home with you growing up?

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