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Tick, Tick, Bloom

With The Black Iris Project, Jeremy McQueen brings Black stories to the stage
Courtesy of The Black Iris Project
Black Iris Project Wild SDM 02-23

“WILD,” one show performed by ballet collaborative The Black Iris Project, depicts juvenile Incarceration.

Courtesy of The Black Iris Project

We have Andrew Lloyd Webber to thank—partially. Not for Cats. Nor for Anne Hathaway’s Oscar-winning performance as Fantine. Not even for allowing a helicopter to be a line item in a set designer’s budget. (Miss Saigon if you’re keeping score.)

We thank Webber for Jeremy McQueen and the hope, awe, and sheer determination that a performance of Phantom of the Opera inspired in the young Black boy from Southeast San Diego some odd decades ago. This determination produced a lush career in support of Black artists and Black stories, ushered by McQueen’s ballet collaborative, The Black Iris Project, which makes its San Diego debut February 8 at the Balboa Theatre.

McQueen, a 2004 graduate of the San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts; seasoned Broadway performer; Emmy-winning producer, director, and choreographer; and founding artist director of The Black Iris Project, reflects on that first brush with theater. “We sat [in] the last row of the balcony, so high up that we could rent binoculars,” the 36-year-old says. “I practically had them glued to my face the entire time. I just knew that space provided so much comfort for me.”

That comfort led to discipline, a virtue not unknown to the young thespian. His first love was music; he played violin from the age of five. He eventually traded in his violin bow for toe shoes as dance became his preferred medium. Spurred on by the New York success stories of some of the BIPOC alumni of his high school, he landed there himself, with those classic Broadway dreams, but also because McQueen “craved for opportunities that had more diversity,” he says.

A Mother's Rite Black Iris Project SDM 02-23

The second performance, “A Mother’s Rite,” deals with police violence.

Courtesy of The Black Iris Project

In a self-professed “elite bubble,” he started off at the venerable Ailey School, finding the diversity he sought with “so many other Black men that looked like me,” he notes.

Broadway was a different story. “I really saw the tokenization and the lack of diversity that exists,” McQueen says. After roles in Wicked as one of two Black performers and a stint in In The Heights where a white director hired a white dialect coach in order to make him sound “more like LL Cool J,” he remembers, it was time to seek out authenticity and diversity—or, in McQueen’s case, to create it himself.

“My favorite quote is a quote by Nina Simone that says, ‘Art is meant to reflect the times,’” McQueen muses. The Black Iris Project, focused on “harnessing the Black community’s inherent creative spirit,” is the vehicle to do just that.

The two pieces to be performed at the Balboa are “WILD” and “A Mother’s Rite,” which take on juvenile incarceration and police violence, respectively. Audiences should expect to see “a forward way of expanding the ballet vernacular,” according to McQueen, through all elements of theater, including music, movement, and social mission.

“I am the type of person that doesn’t like to wait for someone else to be the change. I try to do what I can to light a match and get a fire going to help build the city,” he says. “I hope that my presence in San Diego will help inspire folks to create an even more diverse, equitable, and inclusive theater, dance, and music scene in San Diego.”

By Danielle Allaire

Danielle is a freelance culture journalist focusing on music, food, wine, hospitality, and arts, and founder-playwright of Yeah No Yeah Theatre company, based in San Diego. Her work has been featured in FLAUNT, Filter Magazine, and San Diego Magazine. Born and raised in Maui, she still loves a good Mai Tai.

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