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BWW Interview: VERSATILE Kevin Neighbors Working To Be A Difference

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Kevin Neighbors brings his solo show VERSATILE: stories from inside the closet of a half Black gay man to the Hollywood Fringe Festival

BWW Interview: VERSATILE Kevin Neighbors Working To Be A Difference

After inclusion in numerous theatre festivals, Kevin Neighbors brings his solo show VERSATILE: stories from inside the closet of a half Black gay man to the Hollywood Fringe Festival for three performances August 5th, August 17th, and August 29th. Had the chance to toss out some questions to Kevin on his life-time journey to VERSATILE.

Thank you for takin the time for this interview, Kevin!

When did you first start writing VERSATILE?

I first started writing VERSATILE February of 2020 as a 10-minute hip hop, performance piece for a guest artists appearance at the Region 7 Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival. The show later became VERSATILE: stories from inside the closet of a half Black gay man. Fun fact: This title was the name I had designated as a teenager for the memoir I knew I would one day write about a mixed Black gay boy growing up in foster care.

What inspired you to finally write your mini-autobiography in VERSATILE?

VERSATILE at its most basic intention was a way for me to begin my journey contributing to the pumping of long needed Black, mixed Black and queer theatre and films into entertainment. There's a market and a need, and I am determined to meet it.

A break-up six months before COVID-19 set in, forced my hand on my journey into solo theatre. After a dicey break-up, I was determined to make the art I always imagined but was encouraged not to make; and had plans to write and shoot a Black and queer centric, film and web series. As the pandemic changed our day-to-day and without the ability to congregate and collaborate with others, solo theatre seemed to be the only option.

Within my relationship with the ex and the communities we ran in, I was often told that my experience as a mixed Black man was not valuable, that I couldn't complete college because of it, that talking about Black centric topics, identities, jokes, etc. was political and made everyone uncomfortable. And that people, audiences would not be interested in any Black centric projects I wanted to produce. In addition, it was about the things my white friends thought were Black things, but really weren't; and was admonished when giving my perspective as a Black man, told, 'Well, you're also white, so...' But I was too Black to be good at college, right? With this show I wanted to set the record straight on what being mixed Black is without the filter of admonishing white voices.

In preparation for a guest appearance at the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival, I dived into mixed-Black plays and media, to reference in an opening ceremony speech. That is when I discovered that there was an extremely limited selection of shows produced about the mixed experience, and I didn't want to just talk about mono-racial Black issues, but the entire spectrum of Blackness and specifically my experience of Black, and how it affected the way I walked through the world. That is when I decided to write a hip hop performance piece that later became a solo show. This performance piece became the "Eff You," to an industry and society that had seemingly for so long wanted to ensure I could not succeed leading with my own identities. That I had to bend and change to fit a mold I was never going to be able to fit. This later became VERSATILE: stories from inside the closet of a half Black gay man.

BWW Interview: VERSATILE Kevin Neighbors Working To Be A Difference What's your three-line pitch for VERSATILE?

VERSATILE is an intimate, multi-media, hip hop journey through intersectionality and a code-switching master class. Kevin wades through a political existence challenging racism and homophobia, while growing out of foster care into a mixed Black gay man. He is not alone however, with the help of his ironic African wildlife guides inspired by THE LION KING, Kevin turns half Black into whole human.

VERSATILE has been previously selected previously for the 2020 Black Voices Theatre Festival, the Los Angeles Women's Theatre Festival's HOT OFF THE PRESS event (2020), the Whitefire Theatre's SoloFest 2021, and was designated a Spotlight Production at the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival. Has your script for your Hollywood Fringe run been tweaked any since those productions?

Since my premiere at the Black Voices Festival, the VERSATILE script has been a living document, ever changing with cuts, edits, and new material. The largest change is how the story is told, VERSATILE originally premiered with myself as a Narrator guiding the audience through the events of early childhood and quickly into adolescence and your adulthood fixed with my opinions on events. Now we have removed nearly all of this narration as a storytelling device and transitioned to a more dynamic character driven style, where the events of the play and pertinent information are shared through character scenes within the show. Most excitingly the ironic African wildlife guides are now intricately dominant in the play as we unlock the truth moment to moment.

Any audience reaction for VERSATILE from any of those festivals that took you aback?

I have been taken aback by the broad spectrum of people who have garnered a better understanding of their own intersectionality. With apology for labels, everyone from Black, mixed race, queer, and even cis heterosexual white people have seen my show and approached me with personal stories of how they connect to my experiences in my identities. This has led me to affirm what I have believed for some time. Racism and queer-phobia hurts everyone, not the just the people it is aimed at; and pain as it is felt by the individual cannot be scaled to comparison upon another. Pain is relative to your own experience of pain. And that pain should be honored and given light wherever it comes from, with whatever meaning and or correction our societal collective must and is able to apply for remedy.

Was it a no-brainer to present your Hollywood Fringe production live onstage and streaming online?

For me it was a no-brainer, when I decided to write and produce this show during COVID-19. I knew that live stream would be my only option for some time but wanted to present it live and in person when the opportunity struck. My director Jessica Lynn Johnson often encourages her artists to submit to Fringe, so it was really inevitable. What sealed the deal was when I applied to the Fringe's Diversity Scholarship Production Program with essays and clips from show and ended up being selected as one of eight Diversity Scholarship Productions productions.

What circumstances brought in Jessica Lynn Johnson to direct VERSATILE?

I was inspired after having seen the solo show THE BOOK WON'T CLOSE by TL Forsberg. Before this, I had believed that solo theatre was for the conceited and not something to produce. Her show is about her experience living between the world of the deaf and hearing. The show resonated with me as a person who lives between the world of white and Black, and when I asked her who had directed her show, she gave me Jessica's name. I hadn't set on producing a show at the time, but four months later when the lockdowns set in, I jumped on a Zoom call and we got to work.

BWW Interview: VERSATILE Kevin Neighbors Working To Be A Difference Growing up, did strangers first view you as a Black little boy or a white little boy?

The line of how others identify me is a frustratingly complex and inconsistent line that I walk every day and is shifted by people other than myself with every new meeting.

I never know what people assume of my ethnicity when they first see me, but what I do know is that is not a welcomed first talking point when seeing and or meeting me, I am proud of my heritage, but am and have always been more than just a mixed Black boy who presents within light skin.

What I do know is that people will tell me things like, "I never would have known you were Black if you didn't tell me," or "I knew you were Black when I first saw you," or sometimes it's, "Oh I see it now," and sometimes "Yeah, I thought you were a n***r," I've got this from white and Black people... One of them is okay. And, of course, the infamous, "What are you?"

After nearly three decades of experience being mixed, it is my conclusion that people see what they want to see. If they have experiences within Black communities, they know that I am Black. If they have little experience with the Black community, they see me as whatever they want. Puerto Rican, Black, white, Jewish, you name it, I've been told that's what I really am. In the white communities, if they want to weaponize their more apparent proximity to whiteness, they will identify me as Black. If they want to erase the part of me that clearly isn't white, they will identify me as white until it is not convenient for them. Hope that makes sense. I am both and I am Black, other people think they see has no relevance.

Were there times you were tempted to 'pass' as white?

Of course, there were times that I was tempted to pass as white. In our society it is often, unfortunately, more favorable to be white than anything else, but we know this by now. I will not speak to absolute generalizations, but I do not know a Black person of any hue who is not a master code switcher. That is the game. Within white communities we are often bullied, othered, or held up as exhibits of intrigue, so sometimes people who proudly own Blackness do things to not stand out, or get a leg up from where a racist, bias, society has placed them. In my case I shaved my head, wore hats, and participated in 2000's skater attire, it was not a cute look, to dodge as much racism as possible in my white communities.

Were there times you proudly declared your blackness?

Every day, all day, proud to be Black with a capital B. I had the fortunate circumstances to meet my large biological Black family in my 20's, they are the kindest, most resilient, successful, welcoming, and strong people I have ever met. Furthermore, the heritage of my ancestors is rich with resilience, brilliance, and innovation. These are things that I needed and leaned on knowingly and unknowingly as a child. Raised by a white family, in foster care, in a white community, with my biological brother, we needed resilience every day, and we found it within each other, within our Blackness. We were different from our family and our peers, and we cherished each other for it every day and lifted each other up in it. Our ancestors dawned the first civilizations, technological advancements, cultural and theatrical practices. Just Google things Black people invented and you will be shook by the everyday things you didn't know were created by Black people, unfortunately we are not always credited, but that doesn't stop us from contributing to our communities. What is there not to be proud of?

BWW Interview: VERSATILE Kevin Neighbors Working To Be A Difference What has all the George Floyd protests and demonstrations changed in yourself?

I do not believe that the George Floyd protests and demonstrations changed much in myself at all. That is not to say that I was not affected because I was deeply affected. I was shook to my core, crying alone in my bed and with my community, just like every other time a Black person wrongfully murdered police makes the headlines, it just did not spark some grand shift as it has for society.

Equality, police brutality, BIPOC opportunity, these were issues that were already paramount to me. We have been here for hundreds of years combatting and protesting the same issues. Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, these are the names that come to my mind when I think of police brutality. That is keenly relevant because these are the names of the young Black men that were murdered when I was an adolescent and young adult old enough to understand current events. These boys were, could have been me or members of my biological family. For every generation of Black people, it is another set of names that come to mind when you bring up the topic of Black people murdered by police.

The only important difference that has happened to me, is that people are listening now. They finally willingly to listen to what Black people, me included, have been saying and fighting for for generations. Whether or not this last is to be seen, but we will be out here doing our work regardless, engaging those who come to our table.

At what age did you come out?

I came out at 16 years old. Then hilariously, and successfully, went back into the closet at 17 to pray the gay away with my brother and father, then came out again at 18. Then tried one last time to go back into the closet when I was 20 and moved to a new university. I joined a fraternity and on my first night at our college was encouraged to hook up with a girl who was interested in me. We got alone in the fraternity's movie room and I couldn't "get to work." The next morning I went to my roommate and said, "I can't do this bro... I'm gay, just thought you should know."

Before then, did you 'pass' as straight?

I mean define pass as straight, as a gay man in a closet, I believed that everyone knew that I was gay. However, my brother has always been more flamboyant than me and is straight, so where's the barometer of what being gay looks like.

When I came out some people were surprised, others were not. I was consistently referred to with the F word by my peers growing up before I even knew I was gay, so who knows, who knew. I don't think gay looks one way, so passing as straight is a hard thing to define.

Just as is being mixed-Black, being queer is a code-switching game. I am fortunate to be able to participate and embody, multiple cultures, "straight culture," "queer culture," Black culture, white culture; and boy have I always loved Lady Gaga and RuPaul, but also Kanye West and Malcolm in the Middle.

What response or conclusions would you ultimately love VERSATILE audiences to leave the theatre with?

BWW Interview: VERSATILE Kevin Neighbors Working To Be A Difference I want people to understand that racism and homophobia are real and dangerous. They are not intellectual topics. They are visceral, intentional forces that sabotage youth opportunity and the adults we all become. Racism and homophobia are virulent in interpersonal relationships, in education, and media. It is defining of our culture. It defines the minds of young people. Breaking free from the limiting chains of negative encounters and exposure is a journey, that until completed, will force individuals into repetitive patterns of abuse from others and themselves.

I also want people to see everyone has intersectionality, and that the way that you treat youth has a lasting impact positive or negative into adulthood.

What's in the near future for Kevin Neighbors?

I will continue to perform VERSATILE across the state and nation and maybe even internationally.

I am also currently working on two projects, I am adapting VERSATILE into a series about a mid-twenty something, queer, mixed-Black man and his middle-aged deaf friend who traverse their daily lives in a world not built for them. The intention of the series is to present the cultural kaleidoscope of a society that I see without emphasizing the things that make us different, but rather to celebrate the things that give us joy. Spotlighting real people with different cultural backgrounds, heritages, ability, gender and sexual identities.

I am also working on a new solo show titled am i a narcissist, or am i dis-lick-sick, the show explores mixed Black family dynamics, queer identities, and how hyperbolic language and semantics, are damaging to our society and specifically the implications on racial minorities (or properly termed, "global majority") and the disability community.

Thank you again, Kevin! I look forward to seeing the VERSATILE you.

For viewing passes for the live streaming and tickets to one of the three live performances of VERSATILE at the Broadwater Black Box (August 5th, August 17th and August 29th); log onto http://hff21.co/7118


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