People’s Light launches queer playwriting program with a horror story

People’s Light will foster new plays written about the intersection of race and sexuality. It starts with “Bonez,” a blood-splattered horror play.

Listen 1:28
Steve H. Broadnax III is a playwright and resident director at People's Light in Malvern. His play, ''Bonez,'' will launch the theater company's Queerways PA, a program to develop new plays through community engagement

Steve H. Broadnax III is a playwright and resident director at People's Light in Malvern. His play, ''Bonez,'' will launch the theater company's Queerways PA, a program to develop new plays through community engagement. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

From Philly and the Pa. suburbs to South Jersey and Delaware, what would you like WHYY News to cover? Let us know!

In “Bonez,” the new play written and directed by Steve Broadnax III at People’s Light in Malvern, four Black men get together in a luxury high-rise apartment in downtown Dallas to catch up and play dominos.

But as secrets and fears are revealed, an unwanted intruder lies in wait. The onstage horror is not implied or psychological: in Bonez, the monster is real.

“Blood is in this play,” said Broadnax. “People will shed blood.”

Broadnax has a longtime love of the horror genre, particularly Black horror, citing cinematic influences like Wes Craven, Jordan Peele, and Misha Green (“Lovecraft Country”). The menacing presence in his play targets each of his characters based on their unique fears.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

Broadnax said the horror is fed by toxic masculinity.

“The things you plant into children can and will haunt them into adulthood,” he said. “I don’t think you can talk about masculinity without dealing with queerness.”

“Bonez” is the first production of People’s Light’s new-play development project, Queerways, Pa., fostering the creation of new works oriented around the intersection of Black and queer subjects.

”Bonez,” a play by Steve H. Broadnax III, will premiere on the Steinbright Stage at People’s Light in Malvern.(Emma Lee/WHYY)

Over the next two years the company will invite three playwrights to the greater Malvern/Chester/Kennett Square area, and introduce them to local LGBTQ+ community organizations. Supported by the William Penn Foundation, the playwrights will be encouraged to explore the region for inspirations that lead to new plays.

Queerways, Pa., is an offshoot of People’s Light’s New Play Frontiers program, which supports the creation of new work based on stories from the greater Malvern area. That includes productions such as “Project Dawn”, about a court program to rehabilitate sex workers in Philadelphia; “Mud Row,” about a historically Black community in Chester; “Mushroom,” about immigrant mushroom farmhands in Kennett Square, and, most recently, “Bayard Rustin Inside Ashland,” about the civil rights leader from Chester.

When “Bayard Rustin” was produced last year, People’s Light organized community discussions about themes in the play and its historic figure. Zak Berkman, People’s Light producing artistic director, said those discussions often addressed the fact that Rustin was gay, which affected his relationships with his family, his community, and the larger 1960s civil rights movement.

“Members of the community were saying, ‘We haven’t really been talking about this. We weren’t talking about it then, we haven’t been talking about it now,’” Berkman said. “It would be really wonderful to have these kinds of conversations more frequently.”

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

That’s when a lightbulb went off. Berkman and Broadnax – who also serves as associate artistic director at People’s Light — launched Queerways to parallel the New Frontier new-play program, but with a specific focus.

“How do we shape some of this new play work that we’re doing to specifically catalyze conversations within communities of color, within more broad and diverse communities, to talk about that intersection of experience of being a BIPOC member of our community and someone who also has LGBTQ+ identities,” Berkman said.

“Bonez” marks the launch of Queerways, as an example of a play dealing with race and sexuality, but it was not created through the program. Broadnax did not consult with local LGBTQ+ communities to write the play. Rather, it’s a script he has been working on for about five years.

“Since the play is focusing on similar themes, we felt like it was a great way of launching the program with ‘Bonez,’” said Berkman. “And starting our first playwright residency literally with the opening night of ‘Bonez.’”

People’s Light in Malvern will launch its Queerways PA project with a play by Steve H. Broadnax III. ”Bonez,” premieres on Sept. 22.(Emma Lee/WHYY)

The first playwright selected to participate in Queerways will be Harrison David Rivers, based in Minneapolis, who is scheduled to come to Malvern for the opening of “Bonez.” Rivers will be introduced to several community groups while here, in the hopes something will spark inspiration.

Whatever Rivers writes as a result of the Queerways program will be considered for a future production at People’s Light, but not guaranteed.

Rivers’ work has been produced in Philadelphia before. Last year, Interact Theater staged his play “This Bitter Earth,” about an interracial gay couple set against the Black Lives Matter movement.

“I believe you don’t know who you are until you see your own reflection,” Broadnax said. “Equality is the fight we’re still fighting for in trans and queerness. The more stories we can see to allow people in the community to see their own reflection and humanity, is important.”

“Bonez” will be performed at People’s Light from Sept. 22 to Oct. 15.

Get daily updates from WHYY News!

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal