Monday, May 16, 2005
It's a high school Saturday night, and "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying," the spring musical at Stone Bridge High in Ashburn, has just ended. The scene turns to shrieks of "Omigod!" and happy weeping as 60-plus cast members and numerous crew people spill into the auditorium for flowers and hugs with family and friends.
The show's producer and assistant director, 17-year-old senior Sabrina Audrey Jess, figures she has about half an hour before the cast party begins. With an actor friend to keep her company -- a friend who will come and go, leaving at one point to get out of costume -- she scrunches in one of the back rows, pressing her feet against the seat in front of her. This is where Sabrina begins to explain how "Offsides," her one-act drama about a high school football player who realizes he's gay, landed her in an ugly political brawl.
"I had a lot of senior friends last year who went through a really hard time," she says. "Some of them didn't tell anybody because of how scared they were. There were some who told people, and their parents said they were going to get kicked out of their house, or they had to go to counseling, and if they didn't go to counseling they would be forced to leave the house -- it was just a lot of stuff. And it didn't make sense to me."
So Sabrina wrote "Offsides" -- but only because she needed something to direct for the school's annual one-act festival and couldn't find what she was looking for. She didn't have a particular topic in mind. She was just hunting for a comedy.
"I liked a lot of them," she says, "but none of them really stuck out to me. So I was like, 'All right, how bad can it be? I'll just sit down and try to write one.' "
"You didn't get a comedy," her friend says with a giggle.
"It was far from a comedy," Sabrina agrees, and the girls crack up.
This is gallows humor; after the play was performed in early February, Sabrina didn't exactly have a lighthearted time. "Offsides" was the second of five one-acts on the bill, and a few folks walked out. Says Sabrina, "The people I saw leave during the show had little kids, which I completely understand." The play contained a tentative and ambiguous homosexual kiss that was blacked out almost before it began; more unsettling were the physical beating and blistering ostracization the football star then endured from his friends.
For Sabrina, the real fallout came in the following days. Her play was the hot topic of the next county school board meeting, which was preceded by anti-"Offsides" leaflets and even an e-mail campaign urging constituents to tell school board members that "it is inappropriate to promote homosexuality in our public schools." That came from the office of Del. Richard H. Black (R-Loudoun), who later stated that he didn't write the e-mail but was simply passing it on.
Naturally, that outcry led to an alternative outcry. In March, Sabrina received an award from the Washington chapter of PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) and was sought out at the organization's gala by PFLAG's Spotlight Award winner, Cyndi Lauper. Now Sabrina is the headliner for the Actors Theatre of Washington's "Mondays in May" reading series. Jeffrey Johnson, ATW's artistic director, asked her to stage the reading with her original cast, but she couldn't -- she was too busy working on "How to Succeed" at Stone Bridge. ("Offsides" will be read tonight at the Human Rights Campaign Building at 17th and Rhode Island NW.)
Still, Johnson hopes the reading and feedback session will give Sabrina the same opportunity it offers other writers in the series: "To grow with the piece in a safe environment, where the politics of it aren't necessarily going to drive the discussion." The girl at the center of all this still seems pretty young, at least in certain respects. She is dressed on this Saturday night in Tiger Beat/bubblegum style: blue jeans and black canvas sneakers, coral tank top under an unbuttoned oxford, with matching coral lip gloss. In the show's playbill, the signature under her producer's notes is decorated with a pair of hand-drawn hearts.
Yet Sabrina also seems "extremely pulled together," to use Johnson's phrase. Kim Jess, Sabrina's mother, says her daughter has handled the whole thing "with poise." (She also says the family wasn't ever rattled: "When everything unfolded," she says, "we were like, 'Why?' ")