Playwright KS Stevens’ New Musical Project, Big Excellent 20th Reunion, addresses internalized prejudices & the powerful experience of living with HIV
by Dann Dulin
“Yep, I’m a minority in a minority group,” she boasts one recent spring day of her self-proclaimed “Asian Butch Lesbian” identity, while sitting on dense grass on Greenwich Village’s Christopher Street pier, her fave Manhattan spot.
This month KS breaks from her usual fare of play- and screenwriting and ventures into musical theater, donning the bonnet of lyricist and composer. Big Excellent 20th Reunion premieres June 6 at Theatre 80 on St. Mark’s Place. It’s a tour de force of characters representing various aspects of transgender, bisexual, lesbian, gay, homeless, black, and Asian communities, and includes a gay military man and an HIV-positive person. The play focuses on the differences and internalized prejudices within the LGBT community.
“I decided about five years ago that my life would be complete if I wrote one musical in my lifetime. I didn’t know I was going to be a self-producing playwright,” she joshes with a smile, referring to the many hats she wears besides being the creator, like getting her own financing (she’s partnered with many NGOs), doing her own marketing, casting, getting rental and rehearsal space, signing union contracts, etc. “Musicals provided me hope and strength when I felt different as a child and they provided me with songs and anthems to work out my growing pains.” She carefully caresses the thick lawn with her hand. “This musical is my fortieth birthday gift to myself and the American theater. I hope there are at least two songs that people walk away with that make them feel even more proud to be who they are, or start to recognize others’ struggles and make their journeys easier.”
Hold on. Did she say forty?! C’mon, this fresh-faced individual looks all of twenty-six! Well, anyhow, this forty-year-old had a unique childhood. She and her sister (not blood) are Vietnamese adoptees and her parents are Americans of primarily European descent. “My Mom has always lived with a global nonprofit mentality and retired from the International Rescue Committee and my Dad was the director of finance for various companies over the years. I feel very blessed to have been adopted into my family and to have grown up in New York City,” she says tenderly. “There’s a song called ‘Family Lullaby’ that Erica in Big Excellent 20th Reunion, played by Jevonnah Mayo, sings about being grateful to be adopted into her family.”
KS doesn’t know much about her biological family except that a family member brought her to the orphanage when she was six months-old. “Questions like ‘Where did I come from?’ and ‘Why me?’ galvanized me for a long time. I remember a lot of uncomfortable stares because the sentiments about the Vietnam War were polarizing in the mid- and late seventies.” In 2000 she travelled back to Vietnam for two months, learning more about her roots and returned having a better understanding of the war years. “What I do know about my biological family is that they made one of the hardest decisions in their lives and I love and respect them for having the courage to do what they did in giving me up for adoption.”
Another theme in Big Excellent 20th Reunion derived from KS’s own life is HIV. “I’ve observed friends and family passing from cancer and how cancer and HIV both have monstrously affected all our lives. I have friends who are living with HIV and a friend who has a sibling who was born with HIV,” she remarks. “The first people I heard of passing due to complications of AIDS were high school teachers where I was a student. That was at Bayard Rustin High School for the Humanities in Chelsea,” notes KS. She then adds, “And I only learned the statuses of my gay male friends when I was considering having children. They were very sweet and could tell I was going to ask what they thought about being donors, and one by one, they came out as positive, having lived with HIV for over ten or fifteen years.” She clears her throat. “My good friend, Steve Rozell, succumbed last year.”
It was from these experiences that she created her characters, Erica Klein and Kevin Yih. Kevin is HIV-positive. “I am so committed to creating rich ethnic characters that aren’t stereotypes. We have so few and I write to create some new molds.” Kevin is a composite of people KS met over the years. “Played by Clarence P. Ilanan, Kevin is an angelic spiritual guide for Erica throughout the play,” she explains. “The reason he can guide her is because he’s lived through the good, the bad, and the ugly. Clarence drew from the experience of having a dear friend commit suicide upon learning he was positive. He also drew on the strengths he witnessed of his father who battled Parkinson’s disease before he passed. Kevin flips the diagnosis of being ‘positive’ and reclaims it to mean living with ‘positivity.’ He’s living the life of gratitude that he would never have found without his diagnosis.”
A common thread through KS’s writings is the issue of a minority within a minority. “For a long time I only saw the differences of being a minority in a minority group, and in the general population. As I got older I found it was healthier to look for the similarities that bind us together, rather than the things that separate and alienate us,” offers KS, with a slight tilt of her head. “That’s what the duet ‘Minority in a Minority’ is about, which is sung by Danielle Parker and Debra Gonzales [played by Bianca Leigh and Alyssa Chiarello, respectively]. They are the transsexual and bisexual characters and the lyrics speak to the energy they receive from others, due to all the ‘boxes’ they belong to when it’s not the driving force they obsess over. It’s just another facet.”
Though Big Excellent 20th Reunion only has a three-week engagement, KS is hoping that it will have an afterlife. She’s currently researching queer and multicultural histories for more musical ideas and fleshing out a dramatic play about women in the sales commission industries. Also under her bonnet, she’d like to pursue collaborative songwriting and she has a TV pilot she’d like to pitch about a single lesbian in her forties with a teenage son who has to run a business that she inherited from one of her previous partners. Well, with the continual emergence of gay-themed shows, KS could certainly be a part of a future fall lineup. “I figure if I want to see plays or television with these plot lines and characters, there has to be others who would like to see them too.”
KS is an activist for all of us who suffered from being “different” or labeled “outsiders” and she gives us a voice through her dynamic and poignant writings. (She’s also been an activist within the HIV/AIDS community, as well, volunteering with organizations that are dedicated to reaching out and educating others about HIV prevention.) “As a writer, it has made me very conscious of how I choose to fashion my plots and characters. I know I have a responsibility to these communities to make them feel safe, beautiful, and validated. And for others experiencing the plays I have an opportunity to open up the minds and hearts of others, and hopefully make the world a little kinder. In the end, I feel like we are all on this planet for similar goals, to be loved, respected, and proud. It is my hope that my works inspire dialogue and motivate individuals to look at characters, situations and stereotypes with fresh eyes, so that we can empathize and have more respect for ourselves and each other.”
A bicyclist rides by. Then a jet streams by. We are silent. KS looks at me and says, “The reason I like this area is that people can spread out and connect with each other and some man-made nature. Then, if one really wants to take the time to think about history, current events and the future, then they can absorb the pier’s ghost stories from the days before Stonewall, look at the Statue of Liberty, and think of all the ships and immigrants, that after days and weeks of being at sea, saw her standing there saluting and promising people hope and equality.” She pauses as a tugboat toots. “Look, you can also see the Freedom Tower rising from the destruction of 9/11. It’s all here: where we came from, who we are now, and where we are going, and how each and every step forward will eventually lead us to all the promises this nation stands for, being respected and legally protected as equals.”
Human rights matter deeply to KS. Coming from a mixed ethnic family provided her with an unbiased broad perspective of self pride and respect for others. Her mission is to spread this around, through her works, to those who want a lift. “I hope that I am doing my part to create more awareness and visibility for the AIDS community with Big Excellent 20th Reunion,” she says, concerned, then clarifies, “…the purpose of my plays is to bring people together by first acknowledging their differences and then peeling back the layers so that we can all see how similar we are….”
Dann Dulin is Senior Editor of A&U.