By Adina Pernell and Laurie Maemura
Playwright Kheven LaGrone, a former alum of City College, presented his thought-provoking play, “The Legend of Pink” at The Gateway Theater on September 16, 2017.
Set in the “lower bottoms of West Oakland” in 1989, “The Legend of Pink” is a coming-of-age story about a transgender woman who helps the men in her life confront their own sexuality.
“The Legend of Pink” is as much an audio and visual experience as it is a social statement. The aesthetics of the stage set the mood. Pink is everywhere: boas hanging in a prop closet, lampshades, the bedspread, and a heart-shaped pillow.
The play began with a moody ambience, late 80’s techno music blared out of the overhead speakers as Pink Passion, the lead character, danced suggestively in a pink leopard print dress when she met DeShawn, a promising young Black man who drives a Mercedes and is socially and economically well off.
His character serves as a foil to Ace, played by R. Shawntez Jackson, a neighborhood gangster who loves Pink but is confused with his own sexuality.
“In the African American community, there is a struggle with internalized homophobia,” said Peoples III.
Ace and Pink fight with each other yet stay joined at the hip in a manner reminiscent of Tennessee Williams characters. Pink has a haunting element of vulnerability shown by Stella in a William’s masterpiece, “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Pink even shouts, “I’m no Blanche!”
One of the most vocal audience members, LaGrone’s cousin Johanna Brown, mentioned that the character Pink was largely based on her own life and experiences.
Although she ended up with a man as a loyal as Ace, she recalled, “the whole lifestyle changed for us,” speaking of the difficulties with identifying as transgender in the 80’s.
In the 70’s, the lifestyle was more accepted. Brown expressed that later: “In the 2000’s transgender became popular again.” Pink’s character was dealing with the years in between.
“Men treated us like we were meat, she said. “We were nothing to be seen with. But at night…”
She even spoke of specific events in the play that were drawn directly from LaGrone and her old neighborhood.
“There’s so many different characters I recognized. Kheven was Dashawn. This Black kid in an all-White neighborhood trying to find himself. There’s this whole attitude of being pretty. Then you have the ‘downlow’ thing,” said Brown.
At its heart, “The Legend of Pink” is a commentary on the African American community’s love and hate relationship with the Black middle class.
This dichotomy is what LaGrone wanted to capture while highlighting the struggle of people of color in the transgender community.
When asked why he wanted to write “The Legend of Pink,” LaGrone stated that it was “a lot of different things. One was gentrification. People were trying to tell [Black people] who they are.”
“There is such fear in the community about being middle class,” said LaGrone.
Actor Maurice Andre San-Chez played two young Black college students named Bradford and Deshawn. They represented the disillusioned Black middle class, coping with the ramifications of its own success.
LaGrone emphasized that his first ideas for the play were “not so much about Pink; but about the Black middle class,” and that the character of Pink became the focus later on and represented an even more marginalized aspect of the Black community.
He admitted that the idea for the play started with an article that he wanted to write based on information from a CDC report, linking the rise of the Black middle class to an elevated suicide rate in the Black community.
He proposed this article to several Black publications including Ebony, who later wrote an article on the subject but failed to mention the Black middle class angle.
He asked himself “why did even Ebony feel the need to marginalize the Black middle class [issue]?” Apparently this problem is still just as relevant now as it was in 1989.
When LaGrone met with the actors he found that although many of them didn’t experience Oakland in the same era, “they experienced the same class issue.”
LaGrone almost edited “one of the most important scenes in the play” because he felt it was “too close to home.”
In the scene, a surreal montage occurs where the character of Bradford painted his face white, held a hand mirror, and recited renaissance poet Countee Cullen’s iconic poem “We Wear The Mask” while remembering his mother’s attempts to make him assimilate to European ideas of civility.
Ironically, this is the scene that most intrigued director AeJay Mitchell about the play.
“Usually I direct absurd pieces. I’m not usually into realism,” he said.
Mitchell insisted that Pink’s story wasn’t another woe-is-me tale of fear and statistics about the African American community.
“It wasn’t about a Trans woman being abused or shot. It was about a Trans woman who made mistakes and survived. It’s nice to see a show that says that trauma is not what defines [Trans persons of colors],” he said.
He emphasized that “there are so many people that don’t see themselves,” and that “this story is unique and was not told in [most] White queer theaters.”
The audience seemed to agree with Mitchell. They gave the play a standing ovation.
LaGrone entered the stage and graciously accepted two bouquets of flowers and thanked everyone for attending.
But “The Legend of Pink” was more than just accolades for LaGrone. It was a labor of love.
“I’m not necessarily looking for the applause,” he said. “I’m looking for the conversation.”