This story is part of Made In Philly, a series about young residents shaping local communities.

Last year, Briyana D. Clarel dropped out of graduate school at the University of Texas at Austin one semester short of graduating with a theater for youth and communities degree. In school and in their work with non-profits, Clarel — who uses they/them pronouns — often found themselves devoted to other people’s visions in spaces that had no room for them as a queer person of color.

They decided it was time to embark on a journey focused on “radical healing and brilliant growth.”

Clarel, 27, launched the Starfruit Project while still in Austin, but moved it to Philadelphia in April. They now coordinate writing workshops and performance classes that center around giving queer people of color a place to express themselves. They also run a blog featuring interviews and spotlights on creatives in the community.

“This work is crucial to our survival,” said Ashley Davis, who has worked with Clarel and the Starfruit Project. “And anytime I’m apart of these kind of spaces I then learn how to create that space somewhere else.”

In these safe spaces for artistic expression, Clarel hopes to emphasize that being an artist isn’t about talent or skill or experience, but about recognizing the radiance and brilliance that is inside everyone — and they especially want people of color and queer and trans people of color to recognize this within themselves.

The cast of Firsts participate in an exercise meant to get them physically moving at rehearsal in a donated residence in West Philly.
--- Kristen Balderas
The cast of Firsts participate in an exercise meant to get them physically moving at rehearsal in a donated residence in West Philly.

Clarel doesn’t have permanent space yet, but no matter the location they integrate their work in sociology, education and performing arts to support queer and trans people of color in their healing and expression.

Clarel refers to themselves as “a theater kid," and had previously acted, but while pursuing an undergraduate sociology degree at Princeton, they started coordinating theater productions for black students who craved their own space.

In Austin, they connected with a network of black creatives they felt deserved more recognition for their work that further pushed them to the start of the Starfruit Project’s blog, but they couldn’t carry out their goals — to mount a performance — because of the limited network in academic and nonprofit spaces in Austin. Clarel decided to move back to the East Coast, in part of because Philadelphia’s active black community.

One of the challenges that Clarel encountered is the lack of a roadmap for these progressive spaces. They have to learn as they go.

In October, the Starfruit Project announced their first production, Firsts, a collection of prose that centers first time experiences from the perspective of queer people of color. Alicia Frausto’s monologue was about her relationship with her body hair, and the first time she shaved it all off.

Clarel served as director and producer as they guided the cast to write, stage and perform their original work.

Frausto, a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, was excited to return to theater after a few years hiatus. “It’s a community I belong to, and it’s a space I rarely find in art and academia," she said. “I was only ever cast as ugly characters whether it was Ugly Betty or the ugly stepsister. It felt good to be in a space where everything I embody is beautiful.”

The cast, often sitting in a circle on the floor of a borrowed space, were given prompts and encouraged to write their truths and process their emotions about important firsts in their lives. Through these storytelling exercises the group fostered a safe space for their healing that was full of laughter, silliness and vulnerability.

The cast of Firsts participate in an activity at rehearsal in a donated residence in West Philly.
--- Kristen Balderas
The cast of Firsts participate in an activity at rehearsal in a donated residence in West Philly.

But days before the cast was set to take the stage at CHI Movement Arts, interpersonal conflicts among the performers resulted in the departure of one cast member and the postponement of the show.

Even though there was no production, Clarel doesn’t feel like this was a failure. When thinking back to the start of the production, they remember all of the things that could have made more room for growth — a social worker, a permanent practice space, a larger production team. All things that would have required more funding. Clarel was also adamant about paying cast members, something that doesn’t often happen in small independent productions. But that administrative work took them away from the core mission of healing.

“How do we make time for healing and true connection in circumstances bound by time and money?" Clarel asked themselves in amid the conflict. “We needed to pause and not prioritize the capital-w Work over community wellness and the work that requires."

So Clarel is taking the weeks of rehearsals as a learning experience.

Despite the halt of the production, Clarel hopes members of the cast were able to experience healing and growth in some capacity and is trying to develop a restorative process for the group.

Moving forward, Clarel plans to focus on creating an online resource hub for queer and trans people for color. The digital platform will include blog posts featuring local creatives, meet up announcements and downloadable PDFs from writing workshops at little to no cost.

“I want to focus on things that are practical and accessible.”