So, there I was attempting to lose myself in the drama and the history of last week’s eight-hour miniseries When We Rise, Dustin Lance Black and Gus Van Sant’s chronicling of the struggles and setbacks of LGBTQ activists in the 20th century, but at every break I was reaching for my phone to Google the young actors who brought the real life figures to life. I was especially drawn to Austin P. McKenzie, who so expertly plays gay hero, Cleve Jones.
McKenzie has solid theatre credits including Los Angeles based Deaf West Theatre, whose ASL-inclusive run of the rock musical Spring Awakening, which transferred to Broadway in 2015. This production enjoyed an extended run and garnered rave reviews, and three Tony Award nominations. McKenzie is terrific singer. He sings the haunting Thinking Of You on the When We Rise soundtrack.
McKenzie opens next month in a new film, Speech & Debate, adapted from the play of the same name by gay playwright Stephen Karam. Karam also wrote last year’s Tony Award winning Best Play, The Humans.
Speech & Debate is a dark comedy about a trio of high school friends who attempt to expose their drama teacher who preys on teen boys. McKenzie plays Howie, a gay teen who is solicited by the teacher on the Internet.
They decide to perform a musical version of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, incorporating time travel and a young Abraham Lincoln. The three misfits are frustrated with the hypocrisy they see in their parents and school staff. Together, they try to revive the failed school debate club to help them face the situation.
Keeping with the Theatre theme, the film features big Broadway names: Lin-Manuel Miranda, dreamy Darren Criss, Roger Bart and diva Kristin Chenoweth, plus plenty of show tunes. Also in the cast is Sarah Steele, so good as Eli Gold’s (played by Alan Cumming) daughter Marrisa on The Good Wife (2009-16) and its currently streaming spin-off The Good Fight, who has impressive theatre chops also, and Liam James from the USA series Psych (2006-14).
It also seems very impressive and decidedly gay. I keep binge-watching the trailer.