It’s the year 2064. Climate change has become fully realized and survivors must adapt to their chaotic new environment. Over a synthesized melody, characters sing a dark anthem reminiscent of “America the Beautiful.”
America! America! Star-spangled banner under water / America! America! We’ll just keep getting hotter
This is how “Chasing Elevation” begins. It’s a multimedia production by the city’s only queer youth theater troupe, Dreams of Hope. Each year, as part of their capstone project, the group of teens, with help from Artistic Director Ali Hoefnagel and Educational Program Director Bekezela Mguni, write, produce and perform an original show. Seventeen-year-old Josh Begler said the young writers wanted the musical to touch on modern issues, from climate change to economic inequity.
“We’re going to be the generation that experiences, in our adulthood, all of these changes,” Begler said.
As the show continues, protagonists Jamie and Scarlet—an unlikely, but very much in-love pair— wash up on a shore in their futuristic boat. Confused, the two wander around and realize they’re near a place called New America. This is the promised land, a dry, high spot where the wealthy have retreated to escape the flooded remnants of California.
“One of the protagonists is not very happy about that because they recognize how bad New America is, [because] it’s so classist,” Begler said.
The show paints capitalistic societies and nationalistic views about immigration and borders as harmful. At one point, a commercial featuring Papa John—yes, that Papa John—played by 13-year-old Esai Aliquo-Varela, is projected on the back wall. The audience learns that Papa John has been running a successful political career based on nationalistic values.
“A vote for Papa is a vote for strong borders, good workers, good values and great pizza!” John exclaims.
While “Chasing Elevation” navigates these complicated issues, it does so through a queer lens. Characters identify across the LGBTQ spectrum, talking onstage about their preferred pronouns, addressing gender identity and tackling homophobia and transphobia. Representation is important, Aliquo-Varela said, and there’s not enough of it onstage and in media.
“I think we need to break the boundaries and create spaces for people of all genders and all sexual orientations,” Aliquo-Varela said.
This is part of why Dreams of Hope started in the first place, to provide a space where queer and trans youth can be around each other. Here, they’re free to discuss and create media that reflects their ideas and fears away from schools or populations that might reject them. Pittsburgh CAPA High School senior Red Goblet has been in the program for years and said it’s not only an opportunity to stretch creativity, but a chance to portray a message about queerness and modern society.
“We create media that reflects our stories and reflects issues that we are passionate about,” Goblet said.
But Chasing Elevation is not all about hard realities. It’s funny, too, with jokes about sentient artificial intelligence (think an Amazon Alexa, but as a boat with feelings) and puns galore. For the students performing, this stage is their place to talk about their identity, their anxieties and their hopes.
Dreams of Hope's production of "Chasing Elevation" will be performed Friday, May 17 at 8 p.m.; Saturday, May 18 at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.; and Sunday, May 19 at 2 p.m. at the KST's Alloy Studios at 5530 Penn Avenue.