Breaking Down Barriers at New York’s Fresh Fruit Festival

New York’s celebration of LGBTQ arts & culture
The WILD Project
195 East 3rd Street
New York

Amidst the smothering heat and unrelenting sun of New York City summers, each year ushers in a much-anticipated season of celebration that cements NYC as the hottest place to be, and not because of the weather. There is something intangible, something integral to the soul of New York that appears in a myriad of manifestations throughout the city: PRIDE.

The 2016 season of pride saw not just the exuberant Pride Parade and the first anniversary of marriage equality in the United States, but also the fourteenth year of the Fresh Fruit Festival. Currently housed at the Wild Project in Alphabet City, the annual summer festival collects works from LGBTQ artists that “defy categorization,” according to their website. The event brings together everything from theater to dance to slam poetry, drawing from a select group of artists who are diverse by every definition. Not only does the Fresh Fruit Festival strive to represent lesbian and transgender artists “in proportions more representative of their numbers in the LGBT community,” but they can also boast artists of all racial backgrounds from around the world, from all corners of the country, and not least of which from each of New York’s five boroughs.

New York City has acted as something of the headquarters of LGBTQ pride since the 1969 riots at Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, and the Fresh Fruit Festival is one of the most prominent LGBTQ-themed theatre-arts events in the city. The festival was founded in 2003 and is sponsored by All Out Arts, a nonprofit whose motto states: “Fighting Prejudice through the Arts.” And indeed they do, tackling old stereotypes and new. “Right from the start, their goal was changing the public’s opinion,” said Fresh Fruit’s Executive Director, Louis Lopardi. Even the name of the festival is a way to push back against intolerance: “They said, ‘Let’s take a pejorative and turn it around completely. So yeah, we’re fruits. And we’re all new lesbian and gay theatre, so we’re fresh fruits.’”

The Wild Project, tucked away on a street corner between Avenues A and B, is the perfect venue for the festival. It seems as though anything can happen in the intimate theatre. “What should I do?” asks one character forlornly of his audience as he struggles with his sexual confusion. “Just be yourself!” was one of many replies he received. Another show invites screams of laughter from beginning to end, and still another provokes audible groans and gasps as the play navigates through a minefield of cringe-worthy interactions. Each feature seems designed to coax a visceral reaction from the audience, and people are only too happy to comply. But for all the different responses, each of the shows draw from the same well: the beautiful diversity of humans and their stories.

“We’re kind of a launching pad, and we try to break the mold and let the artists feel they don’t have to fit into a category,” said Mr. Lopardi of the variety of plays the festival puts together. “If you don’t know what it is you’re bringing us, talk to us about it…and we’ll come up with a category. It’s similar to how we hate to say ‘LGBT,’ because there really is an infinite spectrum.”

One of Fresh Fruit’s greatest triumphs is the expression of entirely unique opinions that are often overlooked. Their past successes have included titles like Coming Out Muslim: Radical Acts of Love, in which religion, culture, and self collide. Another notable title is Two Spirit Evening, a Native-American themed show celebrating the idea of “two-spirit,” which is meant to encompass more than just one gender or sexuality in a person.

Just as the Fresh Fruit Festival features a spectrum of people, it features a spectrum of emotions, smashing through barriers and demonstrating the extremely personal, extremely different ways we interact with our sexualities. In the brilliantly written AFLIC (Awkward Fornication Leading to Immaculate Conception), a Spring Awakening-esque coming of age story unfolds complete with advice from Cosmopolitan magazine and snatches of familiar soundtracks (Game of Thrones, anyone?). We are enamored with Bernie, an endearingly unstable high school girl who has fallen in love with a classmate, Chip. Unluckily for Bernie, Chip is one half of a young gay couple testing out a comically sappy “liaison.” But even as we double over laughing at Bernie’s antics or Chip and August’s romantic roller coaster, it’s hard to ignore the sparsely placed, more disturbing scenes. To name a few, there appears a faceless homophobic father grilling his son about women (“I should go, my father is planning on forcing heterosexuality on me,” says Chip to a boy-crazy Bernie), and a mentally damaged mother’s obliviousness to her own child.

Other shows are much lighter, such as 12th NIGHTed – the wild adaptation of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night set in 1960s Little Italy. Sexualities run amuck, crossing paths and genders until wrapping up nicely with four neat couples and a Twelfth Day of Christmas bow on top. Intolerance in this play is represented only in the gentlest of jests: “We can’t get married for HOW many years?” a gay couple demands, when the bad news is broken to them by a deceased patriarch who apparently achieved omnipotence in the afterlife. Protagonist Viola, struggling to cling to her invented identity as Cesario, relies on homophobic culture to maintain a professional barrier between her business and her pleasure. Her problem is that there is an odd sexual tension growing between her and her boss, Orson, who has no idea she’s a woman. “Two MEN can’t do that,” the two business partners keep telling each other nervously as the heat between them rises. But by the end of the play, everyone has brushed off their prejudices without a care, and together they rejoice at the idea of all living happily under one roof. Love is love.

So browse through a Fresh Fruit program and find a play or two that look interesting. Choose a play based on the Bard, Oscar Wilde, or Tiger Tyson. Travel to New Hampshire in 1879 and see how gender and sexuality norms mold the lives of two young girls (Planchette), or venture even further back in time “for a sweet-hearted screw-ball Cretaceous romp” (Always Plenty of Light at the Starlight All Night Diner). Meet a pair of sisters poignantly named after self-sacrificing mythical figures (Watch Me Burn), or the incorrigible Bernie and her boy obsession bordering on insanity (AFLIC). The Fresh Fruit Festival represents not only a collection of intricate, well-written stories and outstanding actors, it also represents the people whose voices don’t always get to be heard. “The belief is that we can turn people around if you show them the other side, the artistic side of what’s being produced,” said Mr. Lopardi. The theme of the Fresh Fruit Festival is not only pride, but celebrating our collective humanity as one people. It’s an opportunity to hear the fascinating stories of too-oft neglected perspectives, and the result is entirely unique stories just waiting to be told. Here it seems that no play can be too weird or wacky, or cut too close to the heart. So find your fancy and, in the words of a certain recent Tony Award winner, “Now fill the world with music, love, and pride.”