I recently saw a blurb about a bar owner who, despite the financial setbacks of the current epidemic, has decided to find a way to give back to others. Erin Wallace, owner of Devil’s Den in South Philadelphia has decided to create signature cocktails each month with 100% of the proceeds going to various organizations throughout the city. This month’s cocktail, the delicious Star Fruit Sparkler, will benefit The Starfruit Project, an organization offering creative writing and performance programs centering on queer and trans people of color. Always the cheerleader, Erin put us in touch with The Starfruit Project to find out a little more about the organization and its founder, Briyana Clarel. Clarel is a black queer writer, performer, and educator whose passions are musical theatre, mangoes, and memoirs. Their writing is published in TAYO Literary Magazine, cavity, Black Youth Project, MELANINzine, Love, Always: Partners of Trans People on Intimacy, Challenge & Resilience and After Ferguson, In Solidarity. A solo show called unboxed: a healing debuted at the 2018 OUTsider Festival, and they directed Rage to Heal, a piece devised by a black cast exploring rage toward healing, as part of the 2017 Cohen New Works Festival. A human of many talents, Clarel is a 2018 ASTEP Artist as Citizen Fellow who has facilitated workshops on leadership, theatre, and justice. Internationally, Clarel has conducted research on race in the SlutWalk movement, intersectionality in LGBTQ Activism in Salvador da Bahia, Brazil, and black women and violence.
Sheesh, you’re quite the traveler, but a little birdie told me you’re originally from Jersey.
Yes, I was born in South Jersey, in Lindenwold, and I’ve also spent time in Brooklyn, New York and Austin, Texas. But I live in Philly now.
Tell me a little about the fam?
I come from a small family, just me, my younger brother, and my parents. My parents are retired now but they were both in education. My mom taught kindergarten for a brief period, but mostly she was a learning consultant working on child study teams for kids with learning challenges. My dad taught in both elementary and high schools.
What were you like as a kid?
I used to read a lot, and I mean a lot. I belonged to two different libraries and would take out the max at both libraries every few days. The Lindenwold library was cool; it was small and looked like a little house. I volunteered there and knew where all the books were. So I was bookish, but I also liked to play outside with my brother. We moved a few times, but we always seemed to have a backyard or courtyard to play in. We’d play in the dirt, climb trees, and have fun. One place even had a creek and we’d jump back and forth over it all day. As I outgrew playing in dirt, I started getting involved in theater. I was in middle school and I was also really into journaling and writing. I wrote a whole book in 2nd grade which I still have somewhere.
I just found a short mystery I wrote in about the 4th grade, I just read it and the premise was pretty good even with letters written backwards. I might have to revisit it! What was a favorite book of yours as a kid?
Oh my gosh! There were a thousand of them! I was into Harry Potter, but that’s canceled now because of J.K. Rowling [and her transphobic statements]. There was a series called “Amelia’s Notebooks” that I really loved. They were stylized like a journal with little doodles and handwritten notes, etc. I think it influenced and inspired my writing. I have journals in my living room dating back to when I was about eight. My mom encouraged me to do it. The series influenced the way I spoke to myself in the books and drew little pictures and stuff. But I read everything from “Little House on the Prairie” to “The Princess Diaries.”
What did you enjoy about being a theater geek?
[Laughing] Um, I didn’t have to play sports! In 6th grade I joined the soccer team at a new school and within a week I was crying and miserable and quit the team. Theater was a much better fit. And it was a different kind of teamwork that I enjoyed much better. It’s fun to create something with a bunch of people and then share it with the world.
I was a theater major too so I’m right there with you.
Yeah, I love telling stories. Plus you get to work a lot of stuff out in theater. I joke that my teen angst music was show tunes! “Rent” and “Spring Awakening” were my emotional go-to’s.
When did you come out?
Not until college, like most of us, I always kind of knew, but the only depictions I really saw were white gay men on TV, so I wasn’t able to identify with that. There were definitely signs. As a kid I used to borrow my brother’s clothes, especially his blazers. I don’t think I ever felt particularly felt gendered, but there were times as I got older when I thought, ‘Oh, this kind of feels like I’m a boy and that’s kind of scary so I’m going to just push that away…’ But now, I identify as a black, queer, non-binary artist, writer and educator.
What did you study at school?
I majored in sociology and minored in African American, Latin American, and Urban Studies at Princeton.
You weren’t playing around! What made you want to study sociology?
I’ve always been interested in people, so I was torn between anthropology, psychology, and sociology. Sociology seemed like the best fit. Then my first semester I took a class on African American studies and it shaped my entire college experience. I liked history too, but I think I suffered trauma from my AP history classes that turned me away from that!
Let’s jump to the Starfruit project, how and why did that get started?
In 2013, I was living in NY and was there for the beginning of the Black Lives Matter movement. I was involved with a lot of different projects. I organized the first Queer and Trans People of Color Holiday Fair and received the Acts of Greatness LGBTQ Youth Community Award. I was writing and doing shows and holding clothing swaps and writing a blog and a million other things and decided that I needed to pare down and focus. I realized that the common theme was trying to find spaces and ways for queer and trans people of color to find healing and build community. I wanted to put all the projects under one umbrella but I tucked it away to go to grad school in Austin, Texas. I was supposed to be there for 3 years but it was rough for a variety of reasons and I dropped out. When I was trying to figure out what to do next, I remembered the umbrella program I wanted to start and decided to go for it. I started the Starfruit Project while I was still in Austin and brought it here to Philly. We’ve done writing workshops and theater productions along with presenting resources on our website. It’s helped me deal with my own healing process and mental health challenges and recovery from trauma. Therapy is good, but often it’s hard to find a therapist who black, queer, and trans people can relate to. This has been my therapy. I feel like I’ve developed the resources that I needed and am sharing them with other people through this project.
You mentioned you had a rough time in Austin, are you comfortable sharing what happened?
I’d love to, we need to talk about these things. At the time I was being pulled in a lot of different directions, which as I said is typical of me. I’m always doing 15 different things at once, but at that time, I was on a research project studying black women and violence in Austin and San Paulo, Brazil. I was doing a lot with the theater department, I was traveling and doing school work. In general, I think predominantly white institutions of higher learning are inherently racist. In this case, my program was run by mostly white women and it created issues. One woman in particular reported that she felt threatened by me and filed a charge of racism at me. I was investigated by two different campus offices for a program that we started. In addition to her complaint, some white students protested and filed grievances for reverse racism, which is not a real thing. My social media was being surveilled, and I wasn’t able to do or say anything while the case was open. It was crazy, the majority of the white faculty backed up this one woman and they brought the entire weight of the institution down on me for speaking out about the injustices I saw. So eventually, I quit. It was traumatic but stay tuned for the book or play sometime soon!
Wow. I’m sure it will be enlightening. What do you do when we’re not on quarantine?
Oh gosh, a lot of things. I’m on the staff at the Attic Youth Center, I also do sketch comedy with a group called the Rhubarbs. Philly Improv Theater has a sketch competition that we won 5 years in a row. I miss that. I’m currently the Creative Nonfiction Editor for Homology Lit, and I do solo shows as well.
What are some of your favorite sketches?
We did one that I wrote called “Closet Monster” and every time we did it, my teammate and I ended up breaking and cracking each other up. There was another one about ruining gender reveals which was fun. I also love anytime I get to sing in a sketch.
Something that gets better with age?
What’s the most interesting thing I’d find in your house?
I have a whole collection of rocks and seashells I’ve collected over the years since childhood. I have them in a wooden bowl that I keep on my altar.
Is it an altar to or for anything in particular?
It’s for my ancestors, and I guess now a place to keep my rocks and seashells.
What was your favorite TV show as a kid?
Spongebob, Digimon, Zoom, [laughing] and I used to watch “What Not to Wear.”
What was the first queer bar you went into?
It was in Brazil in 2012 during Pride. I studied abroad for a semester and I got to be there for Pride which was pretty incredible. I believe it’s the largest Pride celebration in the world.
Your go-to karaoke song?
It would be “I’m Here” from “The Color Purple.”
I remember my grandparents as being…
My grandmother recently passed at the beginning of the pandemic so I have one living grandparent who lives in NJ. I spent a lot of time with my grandparents. We moved around a lot, but they stayed in the same place so it was like a second home to me. I learned a lot of things, including how to cook, and I would watch a lot of TV with them since they had cable and we often did not. I’d watch old westerns, and the Little Rascals — the original ones in black and white — along with Zorro and The Lone Ranger with my grandpa, and I’d watch shows on TLC with my grandmother. That’s where I started watching “What Not to Wear” and shows like “Project Runway.”
Ever have any pets?
I have a cat who lived with me in New York and Texas and is now in NJ with my mom. Growing up we had a cat and a dog, hermit crabs, and a hamster.
What’s your connection to the Devil’s Den?
Alyssa Dukes is a standup comic and she and I have run shows together in the comedy theater realm. She works at Devil’s Den and nominated us to be this month’s recipient.
How can people get involved with StarFruit?
People can go to the website to find resources and see what we’re all about. We have everything there from posts with positive messages and ways to take care of yourself to “7 black queer things to watch.” We have a “Wake up & Write” interactive workshop on Wednesday mornings and we recently sent out 25 amazing care packages with snacks and candles and coloring books and other things to nourish the soul. We’ll be doing a showcase for the Fringe Festival in the fall and will soon start accepting submissions, so there’s a lot going on.
How did you choose the name Starfruit?
It just came to me and I thought, ‘this works’. Because stars are radiant and brilliant and fruit grows and that was the vibe I was going for. And it just sounds cute!
That it does!