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'Shakespeare’s R+J' reflects reality of self-discovery for LGBT+ youth

By Michelle Quan | Arts Angle Vantage Reporter

duPont Manual High School, Class of 2023

Forbidden love. The type of love that everyone who remembers taking high school English experienced when reading William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” — the timeless classic that taught American youth the real meaning of what “true love” is.

But true love” doesn’t always exactly look like Romeo and Juliet. The people reading “Romeo and Juliet” in high school today may not yet even know if they really like Romeo or really like Juliet — or both or neither.

Shaquille Towns (Student #2) and Brennen Amonett (Student #1) in "Shakespeare's R&J." Photo by Bill Brymer. Courtesy Kentucky Shakespeare and Pandora Productions.

Centered around a Catholic all-male school with hyper-traditionalist teachings, Joe Calarco’s play “Shakespeare’s R&J” tells the story of Students #1 through 4 who return to their dormitory and venture into their imagination as they act out a copy of “Romeo and Juliet” throughout the night. This play within a play, a co-production of Kentucky Shakespeare and Pandora Productions, runs at Henry Clay Theatre through Aug. 27. The story entangles which scenes are actually from the original “Romeo and Juliet” or from “R&J” exclusively. Constantly questioning, “Is that a Romeo and Juliet kiss? Or has it become more of a Student-#1-and-Student-#2 kiss?” You never fully know which “forbidden love” story you’re watching.

This co-production of “R&J" demonstrates a growing demand for queer art in Kentucky and some say contributes to the much-needed representation that LGBTQ+ youth deserve.

Jupiter Zorn — 16 and a member of Louisville Youth Group which provides resources for LGBTQ youth and their allies — says what he saw during a recent performance “Shakespeare’s R&J” was familiar to him as a gay transgender male-raised Catholic.

“Having to take a step back and look at myself and realize my queerness — I saw that reflected in R&J. I could understand it,” Zorn explains. “This show was extremely special as it’s an iconic straight story. But showing it with two men was what made it really powerful.”

“Shakespeare’s R&J” retells the story in such a way that provides today’s LGBT youth an art form to possibly see themselves in, just as the repressed Students #1 through 4 saw their true selves through reciting Romeo and Juliet. Perhaps, by looking into love that’s not through the usual male-female lens, LGBT youth may begin to understand how they love and accept that it can be “true love,” too.

Shaquille Towns (Student #2) in "Shakespeare's R&J." Photo by Bill Brymer. Courtesy Kentucky Shakespeare and Pandora Productions.

And while society may have become more accepting of LGBTQ+ relationships and see them less as a “forbidden love,” LGBTQ+ youth are still at high-risk. Nearly half of LGBTQ youth have considered attempting suicide, according to The Trevor Project’s 2022 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health. For LGBTQ youth with little support from their surrounding community, acceptance must come from within.

Youth often see themselves in whatever they’re watching and/or reading. As they’re still growing into themselves, it’s more important than ever that young people have access to representative characters.

Yet, despite LGBTQ teens making up about 5.9 percent of students in American high schools, a study led by Dr. Sandra Hughes-Hassell, a professor specializing in social justice in youth library services, found that LGBTQ-themed books only made up an average of 0.4 percent of library books offered from data collected from 125 high schools in a southern U.S. state.

Shaquille Towns, who plays Student #2 who acts out Juliet, loves that the students don’t have names so they can “blossom.” He believes that each student’s role in “R&J” matched what they needed.

“I feel like a lot of people can take a lot from [seeing R&J], especially people like me, being in the LGBTQ+ community,” he says.

The nameless students in “Shakespeare’s R&J” are like a blank canvas that LGBTQ+ youth viewing the show can easily see themselves in. Literature and art are learning experiences that can lead youth, and especially, LGBTQ+ youth in their self-acceptance journeys so they, too, can “blossom.”

Michelle Quan is a senior at duPont Manual High School, where they are the Manual RedEye Social Media Director. She participated in the Arts Angle Vantage workshop covering “Mean Girls.”


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