The Power of Imagination
part of our "Community Response" series
by Steven Michael Carr

Ya'll, there is something going on at Actors Theatre of Louisville.

I arrived right after church with my husband for a Sunday afternoon showing of Won't you be my May-bor?, a kid-friendly romp of a play in the Victor Jory Theater (it seems all my favorite Actors plays are performed in the VJ). We sat with two older gay men from our church, not quite sure what to expect. Of this I was certain, though: If the drag performer May O'Nays is involved, my spirit is about to be warmed.

And I was correct. For a little over an hour, I sat among people just like me, people not like me at all, and...a relatively new experience for me...CHILDREN.

May O'Nays engaging with the audience.
Photo Credit: Josh Tyson and Actors Theatre of Louisville

A lot of people are up in arms about the proximity of drag queens to children. It seems like every time I turn around the Kentucky legislature seeks to ban drag because they have either a) never been to a drag show; b) only been to late night shows at gay bars (an experience they'll never admit to having) and only see drag as a one-note, adult entertainment; or c) just don't like queer people.

What a delight for me, a gay man and long-time lover of drag, to see this art form used in a way that turns all assumptions on its head.

I'll be the first person to tell you that watching a show with children wouldn't be my first choice for how to spend an afternoon, but my goodness was my experience of Won't you be my May-bor? made better because of their presence!

You see, May-bor isn't just a play: It also contains elements of audience participation and improv, making for a different experience each performance. People are asked to pass toy trolley cars down the aisle to other audience members, come up with noises that recur throughout the show, try on outfits (the cow outfit, complete with udders, was my favorite), and even work together to save a plant that's allergic to sunlight. The children participated in every aspect, and because part of the show included everyone wearing name tags, May O'Nays was able to interact with us all by first name.

Audience participates by wearing costumes.
Photo Credit: Josh Tyson and Actors Theatre of Louisville

May O'Nays dazzles in Won't you be my May-bor?
Photo Credit: Josh Tyson and Actors Theatre of Louisville

For that hour I watched in awe as children talked with May, sang from their seats, and made suggestions to help May move through the Mister Rogers-themed escape room in which she found herself...the whole thing gave me really strong Blue's Clues vibes (if you know, you know). I watched their mouths drop open every time May solved a puzzle (with their help, of course). I saw their eyes light up every time she said their names.

And through all of it I thought, "This is what people are enraged about? This is what Savannah Maddox is trying to ban?"

Won't you be my May-bor? deals with themes of isolation, the fracturing of friend groups, and the importance of being a helper—not simple themes, mind you—in a way that appealed both to those kids and to me, a 35-year-old man. It made me want to call up old friends and say I was sorry for falling out of contact. It encouraged me to be kind. It challenged me to use my imagination in a way I hadn't in a long time.

All of this to say: There's something going on at Actors Theatre of Louisville. From showcasing old plays through new lenses (Dracula) to immersive theater performances (May-bor and Mrs. Krishnan's Party) to cabaret-style revues (The After Show Show — aka "Theatre Church"), the productions feel fresh. They feel like something I've never seen before.

They are indicative of a shift toward a Louisville that I'm excited to live in. A Louisville where not everyone looks like me.

Where drag queens teach children the power of imagination.

The power of friendship.

And the power of forgiveness.

Steven Michael Carr owns SMC Story Coaching, where he teaches entrepreneurs and nonprofit leaders to increase community engagement through storytelling. By day he raises funds for (Un)Known Porject, which unearths and honors the names and stories of enslaved Black people in America and the global African diaspora. By night he curates community-oriented events at Old Louisville Brewery. He lives in Louisville, KY with his husband, David, and their two beloved pitbulls, Mercy and Kiley