The South has always been the stage of many forms of the country’s progress.
Theatre creatives Devin Franklin and David Parker want more nuanced Black, queer narratives in the spotlight. Between finishing classes at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and doing groundbreaking work with other creatives of color, 21-year-old Devin Franklin and 22-year-old David Parker, who both use he/they pronouns, host a podcast called “The Queer Code.” The themes range from humorous quarantine takes to emotionally raw rants about how white privilege perpetuates Black trauma.
They hope their company, Atypical Studios LLC, represents underrepresented groups in theatre: Black, queer, women, Latinx and anyone else who fits under the umbrella of intersectionality, Parker said.
As part of Reckon’s “Young, Southern and Black,” a series exploring how Black southerners under 30 see the future of a region that raised them, Franklin and Parker talk about how stereotypes water down the experiences of both the South and Black LGBTQ life. Franklin said there are many Black, queer southern creatives who are changing those narratives through theatre.
“There’s a sense of a renaissance happening in the South. There really is this rebirth of really young, black individuals making their way down here and not really having to depend on these larger structures and bringing the resources here to us rather than us having to constantly outsource ourselves,” Franklin said. “I always see myself connected to the South just in a sense of, I’m going to keep feeding my money, resources, whatever I can give back to the South so it won’t continue to be this severely underfunded place. The arts should be thriving here just as much as in New York.”
Black storytellers from the South can – and already have – expand on the monolithic narrative presented in television shows and theatre. Parker said Black, queer narratives presented focus on struggles instead of expanding the fullness of life. The most prominent play exploring the AIDS epidemic in the country is “Angels of America,” but Parker said the play highlights the stigmas of living with HIV instead of people living life despite their diagnoses.
Black LGBTQ+ characters are also absent in the play, a trend Parker also sees in other genres like sci-fi and mystery. He adds there are few lighthearted coming-of-age tales about Black, queer love and youth.
The South’s diverse culture and stories is the medicine, Parker believes.
“If it is going to come from anywhere, it’s going to be the South,” Parker said. “The South is rich with complex sociopolitical and cultural history that it only feels right to continue to contribute to the evolution of the landscape.”
Franklin pointed out how some Black southern creators are already doing the work of centering Black LGBTQ life. Bessemer native and son of voting rights activists, Andre Holland showed tenderness as a Black man as he starred in the Academy Award-winning film Moonlight, which follows the main character Chiron as he grapples with his sexuality from boyhood into adulthood in the hood. Ianne Fields Stewart, who identifies as queer and transfeminine, has not only played roles in “Pose” and now on Nextflix’s “Dash & Lily,” but is also an activist who fights food insecurity in the Black trans community as cofounder of the nonprofit The Okra Project.
In 2019, Carlton Bell, who also uses they/them pronouns, founded the nonprofit Birmingham Black Repertory Theatre Company. The nonprofit has become an artistic home where many women of color and Black LGBTQ creatives produce works reflecting their communities. When the coronavirus pandemic closed theatre companies, Bell’s nonprofit kept Black artists working and paid as they performed “Is Anybody Out There?” in September. The virtual theatrical experience followed two Black queer individuals through a post-apocalyptic world where each believe they are the last humans on Earth.
Parker directed and Franklin performed in the production, which Franklin described as a new artistic medium that was crafted in the South. But it is hard for a region to get its roses when people won’t even take the time to recognize its accomplishments.
“People have these blanket statements. It’s like bigotry only exists in Alabama,” Franklin said. “I’m like this is the place where the Civil Rights Movement was birthed from and like these incredible organizers and activists and advocates down here who inspire and do the groundwork for people all over the country and the world.”
For Franklin, progress in the South looks like taking care of all of its people, not just the ones with privilege. While people need to see Black, LGBTQ stories beyond the struggle, there are heavier stories that should be elevated more: Like how the plague of racism and discrimination is hurting Black health in multiple ways.
Despite medical breakthroughs and increase in resources and awareness towards the HIV infection rate, the South still holds the title for the fastest-growing HIV-rates in the country. Gay and bisexual men accounting for 60 percent of new diagnoses. Black people living with HIV/AIDs are seven times more likely to do from it than white people. Advocates point to racism in the medical field and economic, educational and housing inequities as causes for the high rates.
“When the people who are the most oppressed and ostracized are finally being taken into account and their needs are being met, that’s what I feel like the South has progressed,” Franklin said. “The public needs to engage with the people doing the work and finally understand where their messages are coming from, because like I can’t really go to sleep at night knowing there are people dying from a disease that they don’t have to die from – not in 2020.”
Parker is edging closer finishing college and applying to grad school. No matter where their career takes them, Parker said they will find a way to fund young Black creatives so they don’t have to decide between paying off student loans or training.
“There’s a big difference between having dreams and being able to actually access those dreams,” Parker said. “The weight of financial instability or unsureness literally has made it physically difficult to breathe. I want to be able to give back where people gave to me. I just want to be able to give that breath back.”