In recent weeks, queer and trans communities have been recalling episodes of the grim Reagan years — memories of marginalization during the HIV/AIDS crisis and the measures it took to survive — as a way of anticipating what might lie ahead in the era of Donald Trump. Street Children, a new play by Pia Scala-Zankel now at the New Ohio, transports us to those bad old days, following a constellation of semi-homeless trans youth as they struggle for survival along the dilapidated piers of the not-yet-gentrified West Side of Manhattan. Scala-Zankel flounders when it comes to crafting drama — overwrought dialogue, meandering scenes — though the piece is a welcome reminder of histories this island still holds.
Jamie (Eve Lindley) and Terrence (Victor Almanzar) form the center of Scala-Zankel’s ragtag queer and trans community: twentysomethings scraping by, estranged from families that refused to accept them, buying and selling drugs, turning tricks to pay for dinner. Hovering over them is the painful memory of Gina (Mj Rodriguez), the savvy, elegant “street mother” who showed them the ropes, and whose recent murder is a reminder of just how precarious their lives are. While Jamie and Terrence search for a way forward after Gina’s death, their friend and fellow pier-dweller Angela (JP Moraga) tries unsuccessfully to reconcile with her family: a mother who won’t acknowledge her, a sister who insists on using her male birth name, Felix. Death — from AIDS, overdose, or violence — is constantly lurking nearby.
This harsh world, though, was also home to the joy and exuberance of high-fashion drag balls, a culture of homemade glamour, realness, and glitz — even if the labels were fake, or the ensembles fished out of a dumpster. The characters banter endlessly, their teasing revealing the loyalty and strength in their alternative society. They pause for dance breaks — mostly voguing, powered by beats from oversize boomboxes — between scenes of heartbreak and struggle. These dance breaks, it turns out, are the best part of the show. Rodriguez, as the recently departed Gina, flitting onstage to haunt her friends’ memories, vogues with expert precision, and it’s a pleasure to watch.
Scala-Zankel’s dramaturgy could use some of that same rigor. The plot needs a ruthless edit, while the dialogue veers toward the melodramatic, with characters shouting their subtext and leaving little to our imagination. These are New York stories that deserve more attention — and it’s heartening to see a production offering so many roles to trans performers — but in playwriting, as in so many other things, less is almost always more.
By Pia Scala-Zankel
New Ohio Theatre
154 Christopher Street
Through December 17