For the 2022–23 academic year at Tufts, the Department of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies has made an effort to produce shows for the “Year of Queer Magic.” Their newest product? “Red Rainbow” (2021).
“Red Rainbow,” written by Azure D. Orsborne-Lee and directed at Tufts by Professor Lily Mengesha, follows the hero’s journey of a young Afro-Mexican queer woman named Ixchel (Hillary Matos). Set during the COVID-19 pandemic, the story focuses on themes of loss, tradition and life.
After the recent loss of her grandmother, Ixchel is closed off to the world until her best friend, Nathaniel (Baffy Ntiamoah) manages to pull her out of bed and into a heroic quest. Little did they know, exploring the weird, glowing organisms living in Ixchel’s basement was more than it seemed.
After falling through a trapdoor, Ixchel and Nathaniel find themselves separated in a Mayan-inspired ‘World Underneath.’ With the dead, living and everything in between moving throughout this world, the two have to find each other, face their inner demons and work together to give Ixchel’s Abuela (Sarah Simmons) a proper Mayan burial so her spirit can be laid to rest. Part “Alice in Wonderland” (1933) and part “Dora the Explorer” (2000–19) video game vibes, this adventure seeks to explore another world while centering black and brown queer voices.
Mengesha, the production’s director and visionary, emphasized the need for this story.
“We need more stories that celebrate that Black and Brown queer people live and indeed, can be the stars of a magical world like Red Rainbow,” Mengesha wrote in an email to the Daily.
One way this story came to life was through the costuming. In particular, the ensemble (Max Bennett, Athena Beauty, Victoria Chen, Rowan Cunningham, Rita Dai, Candy Li, Anna Li and Ilana Smaletz) had the most interesting costumes throughout the entire production.
First stepping on stage to funky music and clubbing lights in drag-inspired wear, the ensemble was a breath of fresh air. The costumes continued to elevate the story, making the audience feel immersed in the ‘World Underneath.’ From the network’s moth-like costumes to the Mayan-inspired patterns, the costumes added a whole new level to the show.
Tate Olitt, current junior and costume co-designer for the show, explained the power of these costumes.
“Getting to see the actors perform in costume … really allowed the costumes to fully come to life in all their extravagance,” Olitt wrote in an email to the Daily.
Unfortunately, as an audience member, this production did have a few drawbacks, such as the overall pacing of the show. While the show time rounds out to about 90 minutes, it drags on, especially toward the end. The prologue is quick and to the point, but the final 30 minutes of the show feel unnecessary and slow. Around the 60-minute mark is when we see what should be the conclusion of the show — Abuela finally getting her proper burial and being laid to rest. As the entire ensemble surrounds Abuela and she makes her final exit from the stage, the energy dies down and the urge to rise to your feet for applause is overwhelming. And then, the story keeps going. And going. And going.
This script, in particular, feels as if it was written at several different points in time with different end goals. As an audience member, when the play first begins you think it’ll be a story about a young woman trying to find her best friend in a magical world but then we get introduced to several small side quests relating to Abuela’s burial. But then Sunface (Luka Zorich) attempts to kill Ixchel and Nathaniel. Then, the show ends with Ixchel revealing herself as the Mayan goddess Ixchel, the Goddess of the Moon. Rabbit skeletal mask and all.
The unfortunate thing is that the script for this production does not live up to its synopsis. While this story arguably can be described as one where our Black, Indigenous and people of color queer leads live to see another day and get a ‘happy ending,’ it means little when the sole indication we get that Ixchel is queer is by a sudden statement she makes about her mother kicking her out for being queer. And just a few scenes later, we see her “confront death” via a flashback to the moment when she attempted suicide on her New York City fire escape. Ixchel’s queerness is seemingly boiled down to something harmful to herself and to her family.
Nevertheless, this production found ways to be enjoyable. There is no way to overstate the amount of work, time and passion each and every actor, staff member, designer and crew personnel put into this production. Characters like Farmer (Elias Rodriguez) breathe fun and light-hearted energy into the show. Every time the Aerialist (Ledao Gavaldà) mounted her silks, eyes would widen in fascination — and a bit in fear. Moonface (Kulfi Jaan) most definitely stole the audience’s attention as the show closed out with their enticing vocals.
Overall, as an attempt at telling a story of “Queer Magic” and specifically Black and brown “Queer Magic,” the production fell flat. The source material allowed for much creativity design-wise, but the production failed to create a story that your typical audience member could watch, understand and continuously engage with.
Still, there is a note of hope.
As Mengesha writes, it remains hopeful that “Red Rainbow” “creates space for Black, Brown, and Indigenous students to see the theatre as a place for them.”
Without a doubt, this production opens the door for future BIPOC queer theatre at Tufts, and hopefully more is on the horizon.