QPOC

Ms. Vagina Jenkins performs a burlesque routine at the Queer Rebels Winter Shindig at El Rio in San Francisco, Sunday, Dec. 9, 2012. Queer Rebels of the Harlem Renaissance is a production that embraces a diverse range of artistic genres and perspectives from the LGBTQ community. Photo by Matt Maxion / Xpress

Through an “unapologetically, riotously gay” performance, Queer Rebel Productions is shaking out the rugs under which the histories of queer people of color have been swept.

Partners in work and in life, KB Boyce and Celeste Chan saw an absence of spaces available for queer artists of color and, with a grant from the San Francisco Queer Cultural Center, created Queer Rebels in 2008 to fill that void. Four years later, the dynamic duo is celebrating the end of its most successful year yet.

“We’re at this exciting moment for QPOC art,” Chan, a graduate of SF State’s social work program, said. “It’s like things that weren’t possible before feel like they are possible now.”

The project was born out of Boyce’s struggle to find gigs and the realization that it was a widely shared struggle. As a Two-Spirit — a dual-gender identifying individual — drag king blues performer, Boyce found that audiences expected quick, campy routines rather than a true singer-songwriter performance.

“I was actually pulling teeth to get gigs,” Boyce, who performs under the name TuffNStuff, said. “And I realized that it wasn’t just me that I saw that happening in the community. So we just started brainstorming. Why is this such an issue? How can we change?”

Boyce and Chan hosted their first Queer Rebels of the Harlem Renaissance production at the African American Art & Culture Complex in 2010. The event was so popular that, regrettably, people had to be turned away. The show was expanded to two days in 2011, and to three days this year.

“We wanted to showcase that energy from the queer Harlem Renaissance, and recreate it in a way that’s more modern and that’s today and our artists, but paying tribute to those who came before us,” Boyce said.

“It’s all these obscured histories,” Chan said. “In the Harlem Renaissance, there were all of these brilliant poets and blues musicians and dancer…”

“And it was so gay!” Boyce interjected. “And how many people have no idea? It gets lost, it gets hidden.”

Poet Joshua Merchant values the destruction of myths of black and queer communities through Queer Rebels, as well as the connections he has made through attending and performing in their shows.

“It’s a good networking tool for us to find each other,” Merchant said. “I didn’t know there were that many queer artists of color in the Bay Area until I discovered Queer Rebels of the Harlem Renaissance.”

To close out another year of their snowballing success, Boyce and Chan threw a winter shindig at the El Rio bar on Mission Street Dec. 9, which doubled as a CD release for Boyce’s new TuffNStuff EP, “Trans of Venus.” Though it was only a taste of what audiences see at Queer Rebels of the Harlem Renaissance, it was a night packed with music, poetry, dance and film. Spoken word artist Elena Rose and singer-songwriter Star Amerasu both made their Queer Rebels debuts that night.

“We have history and context, and I think it’s really lovely to be a part of that lineage,” Rose said. “To be able to step into that and say we’re part of a family here, we’re part of a tradition of being amazing, that’s something I really value about this group.”

Amerasu, who took the stage at El Rio with a child’s sized guitar and her Clipper card as a pick, was also excited to take advantage of the performance space and debut a song she wrote called “Light the Way,” a lighthearted response to a particularly hateful experience.

“I was walking down the street, and these girls were yelling ‘faggot’ at me,” recalled Amerasu. “And I was like, ‘Oh my god, these are like, 12-year-old girls!’ and I can’t believe little kids are learning to hate.”

The song conveys a message of hope for a more loving world, mixed with bits of biting retaliation that had the audience in stitches.

“I hope that people realize that one day there will be a world we can just smile and remember the past and remember that this is what happened, but we live in a different place and I’m ready to be in that place,” Amerasu said.

All proceeds from the Queer Rebels winter shindig will go towards events coming up in 2013, including “Spirit: A Century of Queer Asian Activism,” and the next screening of the “Exploding Lineage!” experimental film series. Chan and Boyce hope to continue the growth of their project, and are hoping to hire interns in the near future.

“I think with cultural production can change our lives and what we think is possible, and our images of ourselves and each other,” Chan said. “We really want to be a community building arts organization that’s making sure our histories are known.”

Discounted tickets are available for seniors and youth for all Queer Rebels shows. Be on the lookout for upcoming show information at queerrebels.com and facebook.com/QRProductions.

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Kirstie Haruta

Kirstie Haruta