Pia Scala-Zankel’s 2014 play Street Children captures a small slice of life for gay and transgender kids on the streets, and features an ensemble of transgender, queer and gender-fluid actors. Set in the late 1980s around the West Side piers on the outskirts of the West Village, sex is currency in their milieu. When Jamie, played skillfully by Eve Lindley, arrives for the first time at the piers, her nose has been bloodied by a trick gone bad. She’s 17 and unschooled in this world yet she has nowhere else to go. Like all the kids who arrive here, she has been rejected by her family and society at large.
At the heart of the play is the relationship among Angela, Terrence and Jamie. All have been touched by Gina (played by Mj Rodriguez, who also did the choreography). She was the queen bee of the scene and a paean to graceful survival in this world, who also acted as mother and mentor. The three swear to stick together, but Gina’s untimely death creates complicated feelings, and they are now left to their own devices. Terrence, played by the compact and powerfully built Victor Almanzar, who captures the street hood with a heart of gold beautifully, hulks around Jamie and Angela and acts as both their confidant and protector. But there’s not much he can do to protect them, especially from themselves.
The play captures the tension between destitution and celebration that was at the heart of these kids’ lives. Drugs helped a lot to alter the harsh reality. But they also celebrated life with voguing, a competitive dance form popular in the gay scene in the 1970s and ’80s in which contestants struck poses like runway models. The dancer with the best poses was the winner. Gina held that title, and now there’s a power vacuum that Angela and Jamie know they can fill, but they are torn whether they should.
Sharp-tongued, seductive and angry, they toss barbs at each other like others toss a baseball. Jamie tells Angela, “You just mad cause all this glamour is 100% authentic.” Angela, played with a savage and tragic beauty by JP Moraga, counters: “Who is on the label? ’Cause I know Chanel doesn’t take food stamps.”
Rounding out the cast and lending both bodies and additional barbs is the Chorus, played by Joselyn DeFreece, Paige Gilbert, Nicholas Gorham, Summer P. Minerva, Johnny Sibilly, Cece Suozo, and Tamara M. Williams—Williams also contributed to the choreography and shows off her Gumby-like flexibility during the voguing scenes.
Jena Worsham, who directs this Vertigo Theater production, resists the temptation to glamorize the story of these homeless and marginalized kids, although their sassy attitude and magnificent outfits (by Bernat Buscat) could easily allow for that. Angelica Borrero-Fortier (scenic design), Kate Bashore (lighting) and Daniel Melnick (sound design) all help to further the image of a dark and desolate urban wasteland.
Although engaging and totally moving as a whole, the play could have explored more of the urgency of their situation. The broader sketches of death and self-destruction tend to upstage the smaller moments, and it would have been nice to see more like the one in which the married Victor (Carlo Amonacid), who was in love with Gina, struggles with the void created by her death.
Almonacid does a wonderful job in conveying Victor’s tormented and touching love for Gina, a woman who was once a man, and the feelings of simplicity and purity that accompany true love, but also the unacceptable and convoluted context of this equation. The script could have also delved deeper into the harrowing realities of what it means to be a runaway without resources and turning to prostitution to survive.
In the end, Terrence, Angela and Jamie try to find their way as things crumble around them. The dangers of leaving this enclave that, for better or worse, provided a community and shelter from the storm, are all too real. The question of how to navigate the world “out there” are more difficult than imagined.
The Vertigo Theater Company production of Street Children runs through Dec. 17 at the New Ohio Theatre (154 Christopher St., between Greenwich and Washington avenues). Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays. Tickets are $28 ($18 for students) and may be purchased by calling OvationTix at (866) 811-4111 or visiting VertigoTheater.org. For mature audiences 16+.