In a tiny Dupont Circle church, five masked figures circle, sharklike, around a frightened young man. Accusations fly: “Pervert. Freak. Homo. You can’t hide it!” The man, weeping, collapses to the floor.
The audience watching the disturbing scene lets out a collective breath. This is, after all, only a play. Then the masks of the singing homophobes fall, revealing gentle, youthful faces. These “attackers” are high school students; few would mistake them for ogres. And each one hides a secret: Brainy Laura hates her body. Athletic T.J. rehearses every word he says, terrified he’ll slip up. And some secrets are worse than others: Outspoken Barry is gay, and his classmates know it. That makes him a target.
That’s the basic conflict in I Want to Tell You, a collaboration between the grass-roots Horizons Theatre and the Sexual Minority Youth Assistance League (SMYAL). The musicalwhich debuted Nov. 19, during a service at the Seeker’s Church at 2025 Massachusetts Ave. NWdeals with homophobia among young people and offers a takeoff point for public discussion of the matter. But the work goes deeper, communicating the nagging, hollow feelings that don’t fade with pubescent hormonal angst, fears that, as sung in the play’s recurring leitmotif, “no one will ever want you, no one will ever touch you, no one will ever love you.”
Composer-lyricist Roy Barber sees I Want to Tell You as a kind of “oral history.” “I have wanted to address this issue more and more as gay students that I worked with would come back to me after they graduated and say, ‘This is what happened to me in high school,’” he says. “There are so few support systems for gay students and teachers.”
SMYAL provides a support network for queer kids, and Barber says he was involved with the organization’s improvisational-drama troupe, Youth Against AIDS. (Much of I Want to Tell You’s dialogue was inspired by initial workshops there.) Barber and writer-director Leslie Jacobson joined forces last year to develop a play that could tour area schools and stimulate discussions among a wider group of teens.
True to high school life, every character in I Want to Tell You feels alienated and afraid. But if the piece has a hero, it is Barry, who describes himself as “the only cute little salmon swimming upstream.” Amid the emotional and social minefield of adolescence, he’s managed to emerge with the rare commodity of self-assurance. But his confident stance threatens his also-struggling classmates. Some ardently condemn him for being queer; others, more passive-aggressive, quietly snub him.
When Barry is ultimately beaten by gay-bashers, “it’s no mistake that the masked people who beat him up are actually his classmates,” explains Melinda Adamz, Horizons’ managing director. “[You can] talk yourself into believing that things like this have nothing to do with you. But in the end we are all responsible.”
I Want to Tell You boasts no props or sets, just six actors in a bare performance space. Low-key choreography lends a bit of stylized gloss to the realism of the acting. At 45 minutes, the performance is designed to fit into a classroom schedule and to be followed by SMYAL-led workshops on tolerance. So far, 10 free performances are scheduled for area schools. Funding comes from D.C.’s Bridge Builders Fund, which promotes partnerships between gay and mainstream organizations. Apparently, the foundation sees I Want to Tell You as a useful vehicle, and Adamz agrees. “This play asks a question and doesn’t pontificate an answer,” she says. “There are excellent teachers and administrators that are hungry for the tools to teach tolerance. They will find us, and we will find them.” Shauna Miller