Arts & Entertainment
17 min

Seven queer performances to catch at SummerWorks 2017

With LGBT works ranging from disability, culture, BDSM and masculinity, you won’t want to miss what this year has to offer

Founded in 1991, SummerWorks is one of Canada’s largest juried performance festivals. Now under the careful hand of artistic and managing director Laura Nanni (who ran Buddies’ Rhubarb Festival from 2011 to 2014), this year’s event offers a bevy of queer content. Xtra has perused the program to find you the fest’s gay best.

The Archivist

Shaista Latif resisted writing about Afghanistan for a long time. A Canadian-born child of immigrants from Kabul, she felt pressure from the early stages of her career to address her cultural heritage through art. That changed in 2014 when she created Graceful Rebellions, a solo show where she explored the lives of three Afghan women questioning society’s expectations of them.

Now, the 2016 Siminovitch Protégé Prize winner’s latest aims to unpack the multiple identities she’s inhabited throughout her life and push back against the limits often placed on artists of colour in terms of what they can talk about on stage. Combining homemade videos, song, and Latif’s wry wit, The Archivist challenges the mantle of identity politics that so many artists of colour feel saddled with, while also occupying it with humour and humility.

Boys In Chairs

The broader queer community is just beginning to confront our ableist tendencies — something you quickly realize when you see how few queer spaces are actually accessible. But the challenges queer folks with disabilities face don’t stop once they manage to get in the door. Their sexualities are frequently erased, reducing them to neutered bodies rather than sexual beings with the same desires and needs as everyone else.

It’s a perception the creators of Boys In Chairs are out to challenge. Performed by actor Ken Harrower, activist Andrew Gurza and dancer/choreographer Frank Hull, the show presents their experiences with intimacy, isolation, and accessibility, from bars to bedrooms and everywhere in between. Frank, humorous, and highly informative, it’s a show that invites you to laugh even as it makes you uncomfortable. And that’s exactly the point.

Erased: Billy & Bayard

By all rights, influential jazz musician Billy Strayhorn and civil rights pioneer Bayard Rustin should be queer household names. But the importance and influence of both men have been largely ignored in our communities’ histories. The Queer Songbook Orchestra is out to change that. Their latest production foregrounds the impact each man had on our collective past and the rights we enjoy today.

Combining Strayhorn’s songs with stories from the lives of both men, Erased aims to reconnect contemporary queer audiences with the legacies of two out and proud Black gay men who altered the course of civil rights and music yet whose stories were rarely known. Full of humour, heartbreak and historical information, Erased looks at both the power and the costs that come with living true to yourself.


Less is created by Ryan Lee. Credit: Courtesy Richard Rhyme

Masc4Masc. Masc Only. No Femmes. A quick scroll through any gay hookup app will immediately reveal our community’s privileging of guys who meet traditional standards of masculinity. And while you might think the dance world, with its prancing princes in flesh-toned tights would be different, queer male dancers often face a surprising level of pressure to butch up if they want to get jobs.

As a self-described “short, effeminate, lesbian-raised man” who’s also a dance professional, it’s a constraint that Ryan Lee is keen to push back against. Created in collaboration with dancers Benjamin Landsberg and Samuel Davilmar, Less explores the effects of being forced to pretend to be something you’re not and the power that can come with shrugging off unrealistic expectations.

Pearle Harbour’s Chautauqua

If you drop into an average drag show these days, you’re likely to be bombarded with sequined mini dresses and six-inch stilettos. But Pearle Harbour isn’t your average drag queen. As her name hints, Justin Miller’s alter ego is firmly cemented in the pre-1950s world of knee-length skirts and sensible shoes. Born three years ago, Harbour is mix of drag and bouffon — a style of clowning that finds its laughs in making the audience the object of ridicule.

Following in the footsteps of 2014’s Ex-Mas Special and 2016’s Sunday School, the show sees Miller take his craft further, using his acidic wit to address our troubled times in a post-truth world. Rather than barking insults at the audience as conventional queens often do, Miller’s aim is to find some kind of unity in our viciously divided world. Staged inside a tent for that wartime-y feel, Chautauqua offers up an old-fashioned experience of puppets, sing-alongs, and people power, with nary a sparkle in sight.

The Principle of Pleasure

Before it closed in 2014, Montreal’s seedy Citibar served as a central meeting point for trans sex workers and the men who loved them. The infamous Ontario Street dive also offered an outlet for footloose freaks who wanted to get their groove on somewhere less staid than the Village’s gay clubs. And when he caught a vision of himself dancing to Janet Jackson in one of the club’s mirrors, it became the birthplace of Gerard Reyes’ interactive dance performance.

Since the first workshop at Buddies in 2014, Reyes has garnered inspiration from visits to strip joints, vogue balls, and fetish parties, and toured the show to Germany and Switzerland. A sex-positive, body-positive romp through voyeurism and exhibitionism, cruising and reading, The Principle of Pleasure asks us to contemplate both our deepest desires and why we might stand in the way of fulfilling them.

Serenity Wild

Serenity Wild is directed and written by performer and Xtra columnist Katie Sly. Credit: Courtesy Katie Sly

Katie Sly (who also writes a column for Xtra) has made a career of pouring out personal stories on stage. In 2015, Charisma Furs shared autobiographical tales of New York dominatrixes, schoolyard soccer games, and poorly-attended poetry slams. Sly’s latest work tackles experiences with BDSM —  good and bad, consensual and coerced, ugly and beautiful.

Serenity Wild follows Amy, a young woman who’s struggling in her relationship with a guy who’s pushing her to do things she’s not sure she wants to do. After they split, she finds herself at a lesbian sex party where she reconnects with her body under the tutelage of an older leather dyke. Humorous even as it’s intentionally difficult to watch, the show lays out the ways BDSM can be both abusive and damaging, cathartic and healing.