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New Ways of Expressing Black Queer Joy In the Church

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Singer and thespian, 3LISE, with a fierce black church hat and purple fan.
Singer and thespian 3LISE is the music director and songwriter for the play, ‘Sanctuary.’ (pejamane)

During a performance at The Chapel a couple years ago, singer ASTU was in the middle of performing the song “G4U” when their band broke into a gospel melody. Still in performance mode, ASTU called folks to the front of the venue — and the crowd responded.

“We had all these Black gay girls twerking to gospel music,” ASTU reflects, on a recent phone call. “I’m like, ‘This is church, literally.’ People were just totally free. It was an incredible feeling.”

Jaz on Drums at a rehearsal for the play, Sanctuary.
Jaz on Drums at a rehearsal for the play ‘Sanctuary.’ (pejamane)

That feeling inspired the new play ‘Sanctuary,’ a musical journey through church and spirituality that’s steeped in Afro-fantasy and queer joy. The story, written by ASTU and Lovey and made possible by a grant from the 18th Street Arts Center and support from SF LGBT Center, features original music from ASTU, AroMa and 3LISE

“The message,” ASTU says, “is that we start in victory. On top, in the church.” Part of reimagining spirituality through the church, they explain, is uplifting the idea of coming from abundance, not from a deficit. And with that, the ways in which we connect with the divine can shift.

“In the Black church,” says ASTU, “music has been something that has saved us, across the diaspora.” As a former preacher who stepped away from the family practice to pursue their own dream, ASTU says they still enjoy the music — they will literally throw their hands in the air while dancing to gospel. “It just frees you,” ASTU says.


And they’re clear that showing a new way to express joy in the church — like twerking — might ruffle some feathers. But that’s not going to stop them from doing it. “To reclaim that space as a gay Black femme person, there’s something incredible about that,” says ASTU.

A behind the scenes shot of Wesley Leonx, Mia Pixley, and Chanelle Ignant rehearsing for the play 'Sanctuary.'
A behind-the-scenes shot of Wesley Leonx, Mia Pixley and Chanelle Ignant rehearsing for the play ‘Sanctuary.’ (pejamane)

In the play, as in life, there will be moments of both pain and joy. But what matters in the end is surrendering to ourselves, finding peace and honoring all of the parts of ourselves, says ASTU: “That’s kind of the journey we go on throughout the play.”

‘Sanctuary’ runs Friday and Saturday, June 14 and 15, at Dance Mission Theater in San Francisco. Admission is free. Details here.

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