The EstroGenius Festival, an annual multi-disciplinary celebration of the artistry of femme, non-binary, non-conforming, and trans womxn artists, is further proof that New York City has an infinite amount of diverse, inspiring, fascinating, and important stories just aching to be shared. Currently enjoying its 22nd year, 2023 EstroGenius Festival: BAN(NED) TOGETHER continues through Sunday, April 2nd. The festival is produced by Melissa Riker and maura nguyễn donohue. Founded as a short play festival in 2000 at Manhattan Theatre Source by Fiona Jones, EstroGenius exists to present the voices of dance-makers, playwrights, experimental performers, teens, musicians, burlesque performers, noise artists, filmmakers, DJ’s, and anyone else looking to break molds and crack gender codes to the stage, street, and forefront of public attention. Now nearing its final weekend of the season, Thursday, March 30 at New York City’s iconic Kraine Theater saw a triptych of the works of three highly diverse yet equally talented artists: Portia Wells, Muriel “Murri-Lynette” Peterson, and Kim Savarino. The night’s offering was proof that we don’t need huge production costs, elaborate stage adornments, or complicated scripts to make an impact. In the cases of these three talented artists, all that we need to touch an audience is a provocative and personal story to tell.
The first segment of the night, Inside Flesh Mountain, Part II is part of an ongoing series of works by Portia Wells. The piece, adorned with music and spoken poetry in the background, has previously been seen at the festival as a duet and solo. On this night, it was a trio performed by Em Papineau, MJ Markovitz, and Theo Armstrong. The piece opens with two of the performers facing off each other in what seems to be the launch of a “mating dance” of sorts: It’s a reminder that before commitment and even before love, there must be one of the most primitive of human instincts: attraction. Indeed, attraction is both an art AND a science. These first two performers are the same height and build, which creates an astonishing aura of “human symmetry”. As that proverbial mating dance (complete with palpable sexual tension and playful joy) progresses, so many meanings can already be interpreted– not the least of which is the question of “How much do we look for ourselves in our potential partners?” (Many have theorized that a large percentage of gay men, for example, seek partners who have the same body type as themselves.) When a third character enters the scenario, it becomes more obvious that human attraction, brought to life so well by the first two performers, only BEGINS at the physical level. While Inside Flesh Mountain, Part II is told through a trans/non-binary lens (with references to gender dysphoria, body transformation, and Androgel) and is seemingly intensely personal for its creator, the overall message is absolutely universal and can be appreciated by all audiences.
The second segment, Black Enough, by Muriel “Murri-Lynette” Peterson, is based on Peterson’s experiences growing up in both New York City and Long Island. The piece, via movement and background music, explores the tensions between African Americans and other groups within the African Diaspora. On this night, Peterson indeed made an impact with her crowd-pleasing performance. Given its intensity, it is hard to believe she was only on stage for about five minutes. The lyrics themselves spoke volumes: “I’m Black enough. No need to prove that my African-American heritage is equivalent to whatever your African ancestry is… Just Black. Just right. Black enough!…”. Peterson is an intensely charismatic performer, who excels not only in dance/movement but in her overall stage presence: Her face, particularly her expressive eyes, packed a powder keg of emotions into this deeply personal piece: happiness, sadness, sassiness, childlike joy, vulnerability, and empowerment among them. But regardless of what Peterson was conveying via movement or lyrics, it’s clear that her energy (as well as the importance of what she was expressing) was literally bursting off the intimate performance space of the Kraine Theater.
Both Inside Flesh Mountain, Part II and Black Enough, while exploring trans/non-binary and Black identity respectively, actually share a common theme. That theme would be “SELF versus SOCIETY”: the cognitive dissonance between finding happiness in one’s own identity (without compromise) and surviving in a culture where that uncompromised identity is constantly challenged. This also includes finding one’s “safe space” in life. Of course, the more important question becomes: Why should there even BE a challenge between embracing one’s identity and being accepted by society at large?
The evening concluded with Blue Bardo, choreographed and performed by Kim Savarino. Savarino’s provocative piece is a dance/theater exploration of family and of evolving perceptions of death and loss– some of which come to us when we least expect it. Blue Bardo comes into focus, and really affects the audience, when Savarino shares two true stories originating from her own large extended family. The first is about a “celebration of life” party which the artist’s great-aunt Edna threw for herself before dying of cancer. In contrast, Savarino tells a parallel tragic story of another relative’s death– but this one was quite unexpected. Without giving away too many details, it involved an incident in Monterey Park, California, at the Lunar New Year: an incident which gained national attention. It is Savarino’s candid sharing of how these incidents affected her outlook on life (and, unintentionally, on death) that really pulls at the audience’s emotions.
All the creative forces involved in this evening were generous enough to share their stories. While there was no shortage of joy throughout, the artists were not afraid to also share their emotional (and, in some cases, literally physical) scars. If this night was an emblematic cross-section of this year’s EstroGenic Festival, then it should be a priority so catch as much of this celebration as you can.
FRIGID New York and Manhattan Theatre Source will present the 2023 EstroGenius Festival: BAN(NED) TOGETHER, a festival celebrating femme artists, March 15 – April 2.Performances will take place at The Kraine Theater (85 E 4th St, New York, NY 10003), UNDER St. Marks (94 St Marks Pl, New York, NY 10009), Arts On Site (12 St Marks Pl, New York, NY 10003) and the 721 Decatur Street Community Garden in Bushwick (721 Decatur St, Brooklyn, NY 11207). Most performances will also be available to livestream from home. For tickets (Sliding scale $20) and more information, visit www.frigid.nyc and estrogenius.nyc.
(Photo of Portia Wells courtesy of their website. Photos of Muriel “Murri-Lynette” Peterson and Kim Savarino courtesy of Emily Owens PR.)