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Emily Skeggs's When We Rise Role Taught Her 'One Struggle, One Fight'

Emily Skeggs's When We Rise Role Taught Her 'One Struggle, One Fight'

Emily Skeggs

The actress who played Medium Alison in Broadway's Fun Home sees parallels between her character Roma Guy's activism since the '70s and in the way to fight the battles ahead under the new administration. 

Toward the close of the first episode of When We Rise, ABC's miniseries on the history of the LGBT rights movement, the young activist Roma Guy (and other women) infiltrate a meeting of the National Organization for Women. In the scene, Guy tears off her conservative outerwear to reveal a T-shirt that reads "Lavender Menace," a slur purportedly coined by feminist Betty Friedan at the 1969 gathering of the organization. The character declares, "We are not a menace. We are not a distraction. We will not be silent any longer." The scene is integral to the personal narrative of the miniseries, as it's Guy's first act of resistance as an out and proud lesbian. On a macro level, it telegraphs for generations to come the notion that inclusion and solidarity are necessary in order for movements to be effective, something When We Rise touches on in portraying women joining men to fight AIDS in the '80s and '90s, and that resonates today with continual protests against the Trump administration's almost daily acts of discrimination.

"If the Women's March, recently, hadn't made the choice to be so inclusive I don't think it would have been so impactful as it was," Emily Skeggs, who plays the younger Guy in the series, told The Advocate in a phone interview. "And I think that's a really important thing for people to see and learn, is that until you come together, you're at risk of being defeated."

Theater fans may be fully aware of Skeggs, who belted the quirky, heartfelt showstopper "Changing My Major" as Medium Alison in Broadway's Fun Home, the Tony-winning musical based on lesbian cartoonist Alison Bechdel's graphic memoir. But for many viewers, When We Rise will be their introduction to the 26-year-old rising star, whose Guy is at once laser-focused on work and activism and wholly vulnerable while coming into her sexual identity.

While Skeggs grew up in progressive New York City and has been involved with the theater for much of her young life, there were pieces of queer and feminist history she said she learned from making the series, which is based in part on activist and Harvey Milk contemporary Cleve Jones's memoir and created by Milk screenwriter Dustin Lance Black.

"I've been very fortunate to grow up in a time where personal freedom has been extremely valued. I've sort of grown up in the post-fight, more celebratory time in history. And only recently have we seen the effects of push back," Skeggs said, adding that, of course, she had been aware of the uprisings at Stonewall, but she hadn't known that people were roundly fired for being gay even as recently as 40 years ago. "That's a mark of (a) how far we've come,and (b) my privilege," she said. "But I'm really happy to have been a part of this project, and I think that it's incredibly important as a young person to understand how we made it here."

When We Rise tells the story of what was then the "gay liberation" movement through the lens of three major characters -- Guy, Cleve Jones, and Ken Jones, a former Navy man and a man of color whose story speaks to the intersection of race and gay identity. In addition to the three major stories, the series also features trans activist Cecilia Chung.

Skeggs's role as Guy marks the third time she's has shared a character with another actor, playing the younger version in all three instances, and the second time she's mastered playing a real, living person. Prior to playing the middle Alison out of three at a time on Broadway, in 2014, she portrayed the younger version of a character in the off-Broadway women's prison drama And I and Silence. In When We Rise she plays the younger Guy to Mary- Louise Parker's portrayal of the activist in the '90s up through the fight for marriage equality in 2015.

Because the serieswas shot chronologically, she and Parker only overlapped on set in San Francisco for about a week, Skeggs said. And while they did not confer on how to portray Guy, she said it was hard not to keep Parker in mind while building the character of Guy, who, among other things, had been active in the National Organization for Women, founded the Women's Building in San Francisco, and served for 12 years on the Health Commission City and County of San Francisco. But Skeggs, who called Guy "incredibly generous," not only had the chance to meet with her, but Guy gave the young actress a 45-minute recording of her speaking about her life that helped Skeggs form the character.

Beyond Guy's activism, When We Rise also tells the story of her decades-long love with her wife, Diane Jones (Fiona Dourif plays young Jones while Rachel Griffiths plays her in later years), cofounder of the Women's Building and a nurse specializing in HIV care. Between marches and movements, their love story helps illustrate the often-unrecognized effect of discrimination on relationships and families, making the political personal and vice versa.

"Roma and Diane's love is a classic love story, one that doesn't get seen that much when it comes to same-sex relationships in the media," Skeggs said.

With Fun Home and When We Rise under her belt, Skeggs is set to play queer in another role -- as Erin in the big-screen adaptation of the beloved lesbian-themed YA novel The Miseducation of Cameron Post, slated for release this year. Out director Desiree Akhavan, whose Appropriate Behavior was a critical darling on the LGBT film festival circuit in 2014, helmed the project, while Chloe Grace Moretz plays the title character. It may appear that her success in Fun Home has Skeggs on the radar to play queer women, but representing LGBT people and playing roles with social relevance matters to her.

"I choose projects because I feel that as a public figure you have a responsibility, especially with young people, and especially in the queer community," she said. "I feel like now, entertainment is an important escape for people. I think it can also be a way for people to see their value in society. And also a way for people to see others' lives on a day-to-day basis."

Seeing outside one's self is something Skeggs touched on in reference to the work Guy and Diane Jones have committed themselves to for nearly 50 years, remarking that they may not be household names but suggesting that LGBT people have felt the "reverberations" of their work.

"They fought for women's rights, they fought for gay rights, they fought for men during the AIDS crisis, and then, later on, you'll see they fight for immigrants' rights, they fight for health care," Skeggs said of the intersectionality in their activism at a time before the word existed in that context.

If the reverberations of Guy and Jones's work have been felt throughout the decades in the fight for LGBT equality, viewers will surely feel it in Skeggs's portrayal of Guy. But more than that, their selflessness and inclusion are traits Skeggs suggests are essential to winning the battles ahead under the new administration.

The pioneering women's lack of ego about their work demonstrates "the necessity to really truly believe in 'one struggle, one fight,'" Skeggs said. "It's not just about you. You're working not for you, but for the whole community and for communities that are adjacent to your own."

When We Rise airs on ABC Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday at 9 p.m. The first episode is available on Hulu.

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