University alumna portrays narratives of queer women through plays

Kristen+Joy+Bjorge.+a+playwright+and+alumna+of+the+University%2C+poses+for+a+photo+at+Cathedral+Lakes+in+Aug.+2020.+Bjorge+has+been+developing+a+series+of+plays+called+Redline+Collection+to+uncover+stories+about+queer+women+in+Chicago.

Photo Courtesy of Kristen Joy Bjorge

Kristen Joy Bjorge. a playwright and alumna of the University, poses for a photo at Cathedral Lakes in Aug. 2020. Bjorge has been developing a series of plays called “Redline Collection” to uncover stories about queer women in Chicago.

By Shreya Rathi, Contributing Writer

Kristen Joy Bjorge is a playwright and alumna of the University who aims to uncover the stories of queer women through “Redline Collection” – a series of plays following the lives of four of such women living in Chicago through several decades.

The plays follow their journey to finding love and career success while grappling with the severity of the AIDS crisis and the intersectional struggle of race, gender and sexuality. 

Bjorge has done extensive research on queer history and learning about the AIDS crisis helped inspire “Redline Collection.”.

“It was kind of a pragmatic decision in many ways, because even though I was passionate about and knew I wanted to do something that gave the lesbians initiative in film and TV,” Bjorge said. “They’ve never had a narrative during the AIDS crisis focused on their perspective, ever. They barely even appear in media to do with it at all.” 

Her play was performed at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts on Oct. 7-9. Bjorge said she saw herself as a mentor figure to the University students that were casted and that there were some challenges in the execution of the play.

“They were quite frankly, too young to be playing roles like these, which would generally be played by actresses in their early to mid-30s,” Bjorge said. “All of the actors were 19, 20, 21 years old. I think it was a challenge, and they rose to the occasion. I’m proud of what they did.”

“Redline Collection” was an important learning experience for both Bjorge and the students. All said they find the play important to showcase now, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic and have personal connections to it as well.

Uchechi Nwasi, senior in Business, played Evelyn, a very successful Black attorney who keeps her sexuality a secret.

“We’re in a pandemic, which in the very beginning back in March 2020, was scary (because) nobody knew what was going on,” Nwasi said. “Similarly, nobody knew what AIDS was and why it was happening. We had to tap into (the) kind of fear we had then to relate to the fear that was happening in the ’80s.”

Nwasi also said she finds close parallels between Evelyn’s identity as a Black woman navigating through corporate America. 

“Evelyn was so relatable to me,” Nwasi said. “Being a Black woman, you know, we constantly have a target on our back. And we constantly have to accept that idea of having to work twice as hard just to get what white guys are just handed to because they were born the way that they were born. So I really understand her hustle. And I understand her diligence and dedication.”

Bjorge also said she wants to de-tokenize minorities in media through creating a predominantly queer and racially diverse set of main characters.

“The thing that bothers me and is a detriment to any marginalized narrative is that I think it’s important to still be mindful of the quality and the caliber of work,” Bjorge said. “It doesn’t necessarily serve to just throw paint on the wall and say, OK, this is art because it’s a marginalized narrative. Not all people of color, not all queer people experience the same things or have the same stories or narratives. And so I think awareness helps, but more can be done, especially when it comes to heterogeneity of experience.” 

Alex George, junior in FAA, finds Bjorge’s attempt to change queer and minority portrayal in media successful. They read stage directions for the play.

“There was something about these women and the way they were written because they were written by a lesbian playwright, that they were real,” George said. “You could tell it was written by somebody who intimately understands what that culture is.

“And I think part of that nuance actually is the capacity, they had to fail. I think sometimes authors or playwrights are afraid to write flawed characters that represent a minority. And all of these characters were so flawed and so human. I think that’s what made them really wonderful. Not one of them was a token.”

George, like Nwasi, also said they find “Redline Collection”  significant to their perception of their identity.

“The most important part of this process was to recognize that that is part of our history, that is part of who we are,” George said. “Just because that happened 30 years ago, does not make those stories irrelevant. It was really important to me to see to see that story told, and it really changed my perception of myself and what it means to have the identity I do, what it means to be a lesbian.”

Having made an impact on the students at the University, Bjorge said she’s confident that her play will do so on a wider stage. She looks forward to finishing the stories of these characters throughout each decade and continuing to shed light on these marginalized queer experiences.