The next night following Moonlight’s win for Best Picture at the Oscars, a first for a Black LGBTQ film, True Colors Out Youth Theater — the country’s longest running LGBTQ youth theater company — celebrated a first: a 2016 National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award, presented to them in November at the White House by First Lady Michelle Obama.
The National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award is the highest award in the country for youth development programs, and receiving the award is a historic moment not only for True Colors, but also for the White House in recognizing and honoring the artistic talents of America’s LGBTQ youth, especially youth of color.
As one of the 12 awardees, chosen from a pool of more than 251 nominations and 50 finalists, True Colors is the first LGBTQ organization to receive the award. Evelyn Francis, 40, director of programming at The Theater Offensive, the organization behind True Colors, and troupe member Traeshayona “Trae” Weekes, 18, accepted the award from First Lady Michelle Obama. Weekes shared what it was like to travel to the White House to receive the award.
“I never left Boston until True Colors… Accepting this award from the First Lady of the United States at the White House was an unforgettable experience, and I’m so proud to be part of the first ever LGBTQ organization to receive this honor,” Weekes told The Advocate. “It’s amazing to see that the power of True Colors’ work in helping make communities a safer space for LGBTQ youth while giving us a place to explore our identity and find our own culture in a way that is recognized and valued.”
True Colors celebrated receiving the award at the historic Hibernian Hall in Roxbury, and the evening was an extravaganza showcasing local LGBTQ artists and performers, like rapper Oompa, poet Black Venus, and the fabulous Fly Girls — Neon Calypso, Yune Neptune and Candace — to name a few. Generations of True Colors participants proudly returned for the evening to celebrate not only the coveted honor, but also the man who made it all happen.
“This moment means the world to me because it’s the coming together of all the generations of True Colors Out Youth Theater. This is crazy! There are people who were in True Colors in the beginning who have children old enough to be in True Colors now,” Abe Rybeck, self-proclaimed “queer hillbilly” from West Virginia, ebulliently shared with me wearing his signature incandescent chandelier-like earrings.
True Colors Out Youth Theater is the creative genius of Abe Rybeck, 56, renowned executive artistic director of The Theater of the Offensive. The youth troupe has been in existence since 1994, and is the oldest out and allied youth theater in the world. The ages range from 14-22, where 75 percent are youth of color and 40 percent are either gender-nonconforming or transgender coming from Greater Boston’s urban enclaves.
True Colors serves as a community sounding board and home base in forming and nurturing Greater Boston’s diverse LGBTQ youth artistic talent pool. The troupe receives theater training, leadership development, and performance opportunities across greater Boston and beyond. And with the training the troupe challenges heterosexist cultural and familial norms by creating educational and social opportunities for cross-cultural dialogue within their communities by touring schools, churches, youth groups and social agencies.
For 23 years, True Colors teaches troupe members how to create art work from their authentic unapologetic lives. Learning that their lives are a work in progress as they grow and evolve, troupe members have shared that Rybeck have taught them how to put their stories in their bodies, and keep them there.
With this Trump presidency, LGBTQ communities across the country are worried if the country will become less accepting. Just last month the Trump administration rolled back protections for transgender students revoking federal guidelines that allowed use of public school restrooms matching their gender identity. The week True Colors learned of their award Trump use the Orlando gay nightclub shooting to broaden his ban on immigrants.
When I asked how will True Colors respond to a Trump presidency rollbacking on LGBTQ rights Rybeck laughed stating, “My young folks will not tolerate it!”
Rev. Irene Monroe is a Huffington Post blogger and freelance journalist.