Queer bars are more than just bars that happen to be queer. They can be a refuge, a meeting place, and, quite literally, a safe space. They’re also places where our history has been written: from the Stonewall riots to the Pulse Nightclub shooting. Sam Mueller’s latest production unpacks what happens when the safety and refuge of such a space is undone in a moment’s notice.
Alongside the show’s principal plot and setting, Laced—which begins About Face Theatre’s 27th season—is also ultimately about how three very different people come together to grieve and to heal amid the tragedy they are faced with, Mueller says.
3/17-4/17: Thu-Sat 7:30 PM, Sun 3 PM, Den Theatre, 1331 N. Milwaukee, 773-697-3830, aboutfacetheatre.com, $5-$35.
And if the show’s setting seems familiar, that’s because it is. Mueller says they began writing the show during the emotional limbo between the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida, in June 2016 and the subsequent election later that year of former President Donald Trump, who would wage a particularly nasty fight against LGBTQ+ people in the country during his term.
Aida Delaz, who up until recently was slated to play bartender and temporary manager Minnow, says the shooting also serves as a grounding point for the actors in the show as well.
“For me, as someone working in the rehearsal room, [Pulse] is something that is always in my heart and in my mind, something that I’m always trying to honor,” Delaz says. “Because of the proximity in the play—it’s 2016, it’s November, June was a couple of months ago—and so this is so tender in everyone’s heart. I mean, it is 2022 and I am still tender about it today.”
Daniela Martinez will now be portraying Minnow.
Mueller says the show was also an effort to highlight different identities and experiences from the broader LGBTQ+ community than those usually given space in the media—namely white gay cisgender men. That’s particularly crucial when using Pulse as a signal post, given the often overlooked issue of how race played a part in the tragedy, which took place during an event serving a mostly Latinx crowd.
But more than a mere unpacking of the Pulse shooting, the show also examines, through the process of literally and figuratively repairing the bar, the blurry if sometimes nonexistent lines between people facing harm and people doing harm. How can one person’s way of healing hurt another person who also needs to heal? And how do we collectively heal from that and other, complicated, greater harms?
“It’s about more than ‘who done it?’” says Collin Quinn Rice, who plays another bartender, Cat. “It’s about collective healing and noticing the moment in which we create tiny harms for each other.”
Rice says the show also grapples with different, sometimes conflicting ways people want or need to move on from a personal tragedy.
“Do we repair this quietly or do we fight hard and loud and voraciously for the space and demand the space that we as queer people need to heal and to be in community together?” Rice says.
Though they were cast in this particular iteration of the show in 2020, they were a college collaborator with Mueller and have been attached to the project in some way since its first draft. But in the two-year delay since being cast in 2020, Rice has found a new appreciation for the character of Cat.
“In 2020, when I was cast and was given the offer, reaching for this character felt like climbing a mountain,” they say. “And now two years later after I’ve gone through immense trauma and personal growth and healing—in the physical sense, mental sense, and emotional sense—instead of having to reach for Cat, I’m arriving at them and I’m meeting them face to face.”
Rice, Mueller, and the show’s other actors all also agree that the show’s message and one of its central questions of our collective responsibility to one another is only more relevant now, two years into a global pandemic that has taken almost one million lives in the U.S.
While the subject of the play is particularly poignant, behind the scenes, the show’s actors say the two-year wait to perform has made the space electrifying.
Mariah Copeland plays the younger bartender Audra, and like Rice signed onto the project two years ago. Laced, which is the first live production About Face has presented since 2019, is also her first in-person theater production since the start of the pandemic.
“Everyone is so excited to be creating something, and something that we’ve had to reflect on when we’re thinking about community and shared spaces and what it means to support people really close to you,” Copeland says.
“The play is a lot about how we keep each other safe, how do we look out for one another? And right now this is something we are talking about a lot of time but haven’t taken stock of with our immediate relationships.”
But don’t expect the show to answer its central questions by the end. Like grief and trauma themselves, the answers aren’t neat or tidy. And they’re not the same for everyone. Rice and others say the show is more focused on the messy but important conversations than the solution.
“I really hope people leave feeling closer to someone,” Rice says. “Watching these three characters love each other so intensely and hurt each other and come out of it changed and with either a stronger sense of community or maybe not, I hope it encourages audiences to love a little harder, love a little more queerly.”