Review: "The Queer Witch Conspiracy" Makes No Bones About Its American Horror Story

 The Queer Witch Conspiracy

Written by Brandon Walker

Directed by Erin Cronican

Presented by The Seeing Place Theater

Live via Zoom June 23 and 24, 2021; and on demand via YouTube through June 27, 2021

The ensemble. Courtesy Kampfire PR. 
Andrew J. Owens writes in his study Desire After Dark: Contemporary Queer Cultures and Occultly Marvelous Media (Indiana University Press, 2021) that "both queerness and occultism have been united by a historical doubling down of secrecy, empherality, and the evasion of official archival records," but the internet, through platforms such as Tumblr, has "allowed minoritarian communities the ability to articulate senses of both community and self that might otherwise prove difficult, distressing, and even dangerous within normal daily interactions" (141, 140). This dynamic is central to the The Seeing Place Theater's new production, The Queer Witch Conspiracy, written by Brandon Walker, the company's Producing Artistic Director, and directed by Executive Artistic Director Erin Cronican. The play, making its world premiere, takes its inspiration from a real-life controversy that erupted in 2015 when a member of an online community of queer practioners of magick offered to ship human bones to members who would pay for shipping. In dramatizing this event, The Queer Witch Conspiracy compellingly and without sanding off its characters' rough edges traces the fault lines that this controversy exposes within one intersectional community as well as the larger issues of inequity onto which they open. The production benefits The Audre Lorde Project, a New York City-focused LGBTQIA+ BIPOC community organizing center.

Having been written for and largely set within the Zoom platform allows The Queer Witch Conspiracy some touches of immersion right from the outset, positioning audience members as other witches in the group headed by Pala (Jon L. Peacock), whose pronouns are she-wolf and they. The group uses pseudonyms, of which Pala is one, when meeting, a practice that gestures simultaneously to secrecy as security and to naming as agency in self-fashioning. In the opening scene, Asriel (William Ketter) complains during one of the group's meetings, an online replacement for the usual park meet-up for solstice, that certain lines of conversation are being shut down. Asriel is of course referring to the ethicality of one of their number sending human bones across state lines, something that also upsets Nas (Juanes Montoya), a low-income witch of color who lives in New Orleans and volunteers in the overcrowded and under-resourced cemetery that is the reputed origin of the bones. Pala offers the defense that the witch in question, Jadis (playwright Brandon Walker) is not technically selling the bones and is merely collecting them, not digging them up. Someone, though, has been leaking this conversation to the wider internet.
Brandon Walker. Courtesy Kampfire PR.

Even prior to the repercussions of this leak, however, the intra-group conflict is not limited to disagreements over the bone issue. Witches argue over one another's authenticity and accusations of cultural appropriation—witch Willow (Weronika Helena Wozniak) especially comes in for a lot of criticism—and in this, the play examines what Jadis at one point characterizes as over-policing at the expense of (or, arguably, sometimes purposely to distract from) the actual hard work of inclusivity and communication. Where some might see self-interest in the actions of blogger Elsa (director Erin Cronican), whose confessional-style videos periodically frame events in (her particular) hindsight, she justifies what she does as attempts to foster empathy and understanding. None of these characters can be taken in black and white terms, however: when witch Mabel (Laura Clare Browne) criticizes Pala's leadership, she can be petty and have a point at the same time. Elsa's backstory can add context to what she does without divesting her of responsibility. One can (though one doesn't have to) condemn Jadis's bone collecting while simultaneously empathizing with how it relates to their experience as an economically disadvantaged non-binary person of color and parent.      

Erin Cronican. Courtesy Kampfire PR.

The cast comfortably inhabits these complex characters: alongside Peacock as the group's sympathetically flawed mother wolf and Browne as their somewhat tightly wound second-in-command, Wozniak and Ketter bring, in different registers, some comic moments, while a tense emotionality permeates a pair of scenes featuring Cronican opposite Montoya and Cronican opposite Walker. The live Zoom performances are each followed by a brief Q&A with the cast, and a free talkback, "Action Steps - Making Online Spaces Safe," with Leah Ramillano of the group Theater Professionals of Underrepresented Genders and the Seeing Place's Outreach Team, will take place via Zoom on Saturday, June 26. Take advantage of the limited run and let The Queer Witch Conspiracy cast its spell on you. Human remains optional.

-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards


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