Saturday Church -- a marvelous new musical by filmmaker Damon Cardasis (Maggie's Plan) -- centers on Ulysses (Luke Kain), a gender-nonconforming 14-year-old who finds refuge in a church after a Bible-toting family member kicks him out of his home in the Bronx.
The film, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, was a heartwarming hit with viewers, who voted it as a runner-up for the Narrative Audience Award. Like Moonlight, it showed the struggles many LGBT youth of color face. But Saturday Church also shone a spotlight on the communities that exist to help these young people through the darkest times. It did so with a dash of magical realism, injecting song and dance in ways that showed how music could also create a place of escape.
At Tribeca, Cardasis revealed to The Advocate that the church depicted in his film is based on a real-life place: the Church of St. Luke in the Fields.
"I made [Saturday Church] because I found out about a program in a church in the West Village for LGBTQ youth that happened every Saturday night," said Cardasis. "The program provided social services and food and care for kids. Some were living on the streets. Some were dealing with drug addiction and various things. The program was there to support them."
"I was amazed at the fact that it was in a church, considering most of these kids were on the street due to religion," he added. "The inspiration came from there. I volunteered there awhile and met the kids and heard their stories. It grew from there."
The program, Art & Acceptance at St. Luke's, provides a variety of services for LGBT youth between the ages of 16 to 24. And like Ulysses, many of them are young men of color. Health professionals, in collabroation with Project Stay, are on hand to offer HIV, STI, and pregnancy testing. There are also legal services, crisis intervention with social workers, mental health services, clothes, and meals.
"We do our very best to provide an LGBTQ-affirming space where we use the principles of harm reduction the 'meet the young people where they are at' in any given moment," the program noted on its website, which pointed out that LGBT young people suffer higher rates of homelessness than their straight peers. The goal of the program is to "create an affirming and welcoming environment where young people can come each week for support."
In addition, St. Luke's has a gymnasium for recreational activities that range from basketball to yoga to voguing. These activities inspired Cardasis to make his movie into a musical.
"At the gymnasium, the kids would vogue, they would dance, they would perform," he said. "It just sort of bled together. It seemed like voguing and performance was in some ways a relief. In some ways, [they were] an escape from some of the more dark or difficult things. It just seemed natural that music would be used as a device to escape from this harsh reality. A little Dancer in the Dark."
Ulysses's journey is drawn from the experiences of those at St. Luke's. He must deal with school bullying, unaccepting family members, and then living on the streets. Later, he is tempted by sex work as a means of survival. Saturday Church, a resource and community providing shelter from the storm, is what keeps him going throughout the rest of the week. There, audience members will also see a welcome face: transgender activist Kate Bornstein, plays the social worker who helps Ulysses. Trans women, played by trans actresses Indya Moore, Alexia Garcia, and MJ Rodriguez, also provide him with support.
The election of Donald Trump has not helped matters for LGBT young people, who now experience "unprecedented highs" of bullying, according to a 2017 report from RTI International. Cardasis hopes his own film draws attention to the importance of programs like St. Luke's and also sparks empathy in a time when youth sorely need it.
"It's a human story that's set in this world," he said. "And I think if people can relate to one another on a human level, then they'll understand a diverse array of stories. If this helps open some people's minds and maybe see a community that you may not be accustomed with in a different, better light, then that would be amazing. If this could be something positive in a dark time, I would like to think it's a hopeful film and people find inspiration and comfort with it."
Cardasis also has a message for LGBT youth who feel scared in these uncertain times.
"There is hope," he said. "You should be yourself, and that it may seem dark where you are, but that there is a whole community filled with love and support that is out there waiting for you."
"They may not be in your hometown or the easiest to get to, [but] they are out there and there are people who will love you for who you are, which is the best thing. You should always be who you are," he added.
Luka Kain, who portrays Ulysses, said this movie and its message must reach those who are in his character's shoes.
"I want this film for young children who don't feel like they're safe and who don't have support from their family about who they are to see this and know there's someplace in the world where there's a safe space for them," he said.
To donate funds, clothes, or other resources to the essential services of St. Luke, visit its website. And don't miss Saturday Church, which will screen at the film festivals Frameline and Outfest this summer. Watch the interview with Cardasis below.
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