‘It’s really a play about that feeling you get the first time you fall in love.’
That’s how queer actor Tom Ross-Williams sums up Run, a play about 17-year-old Yonni, who happens to be Jewish and gay, and the first time he falls in love.
‘What’s so beautiful about it is it’s not how Judaism keeps them apart,’ he told Gay Star News.
‘But how it brings them together and I think that that’s something that’s kind of really forward thinking.’
As such, Tom said he believes Run is universal and accessible for everyone, no matter if they’re religious or not.
‘It’s really just about that awkwardness and that besottedness and that craziness what it is to be in love for the first time as a teeanger, he said.
‘And I think in that sense there’s a real deep universality to it.’
Born and raised in London, Tom himself started acting as a child.
But he only saw it as a professional option when he started to get involved with the National Youth Theatre at the age of 16.
After finishing college he went off to study English and Drama and eventually came back to tread the boards in London.
‘I did a show that transferred to the West End called Vieux Carré, the Tennessee Williams play, that had been the first time it was revised in London,’ Tom said.
‘That was sort of the first time I came back post-National Youth Theatre.’
Now he is opening Run at London’s Bunker Theatre, starring in the role as Yonni – and the play and its star already made headlines before it opened.
Earlier this month, it ran at W3, a Jewish community center in North London. It was part of GAYW3, a season of LGBTI theater.
When vandals smeared homophobic graffiti across a sign advertising GAYW3, Tom reacted rather gracefully – by offering the vandals free tickets to come and see the show.
Nobody took him up on the offer, but there’s still a chance they might. And Tom is prepared.
‘I’m going to make sure the box office keeps [the tickets] there,’ he said.
‘In case they do want to turn up.’
But why offer tickets to vandals in the first place?
‘The motivation was about feeling that we need to start to create a conversation around the people that we don’t necessarily have the same value system as, or disagree with,’ Tom said.
‘And for me that’s a really big and important at the moment, to reach outside of the agenda and try to understand where they are coming from.’
Tom told Gay Star News he really hopes the vandals will show up – and maybe take part in one of the post-show talks, too.
For him, working with young people in schools has shown him how talking and, more importantly, listening can make a difference.
‘I think one of the most effective ways of challenging homophobia is to [see] why they think that and where that is coming from,’ he said.
‘Because I think it’s the inability to listen which often fuels a lot of hate.
‘So it’s kind of a macrocosm of that, to say “look, let’s try to have a conversation” and I really mean that.’
Much like his character Yonni, Tom is also Jewish, although he is not practicing.
‘I had a Bar Mitzvah. I’m not practicing, I go once a year for like Jewish New Year and stuff like that,’ he said.
‘Judaism, it’s culturally more the stuff of someone’s identity than maybe other religions, due to how much of a minority it is, and how close-knit that community is.’
‘We need more stories that aren’t coming out stories.’
He grew up in a very liberal community, which is the reason why his sexuality was not an issue.
‘If I was from a conservative background, or if I was from a more Hasidic Jewish background, I’m sure it would be very different,’ Tom said.
Growing up, the actor also found the Jewish and the queer community to not be that different, after all.
‘In terms of the intersection of my queer identity and my Jewish identity, I think that something I always found really comforting in the Jewish community is that you question everything,’ he said.
‘And for me that aligns very closely with I how think the queer community also does.’
Challenging the norm is very rooted in his queer identity, he said; but it’s also part of the Jewish community, from the moment children get to ask the four questions at Passover.
For Tom, his and Yonni’s experiences are similar. Both the actor and the character have a good, close bond with their family.
The biggest difference lies in the way their sexuality was treated.
‘I think there’s something beautiful about the play in how uncomplicated [Yonni’s] sexuality is. There’s not a coming out narrative in there,’ Tom said.
‘At no point are they talking how difficult it is for him to be gay or to be in a relationship with a man. I think that is something that’s difference from my experience, just because of the time that I grew up in.’
Yonni’s story, or rather the absence of the inevitable coming out narrative, is something Tom says is important to see – and something he’d like to see more of in queer art.
‘We need more stories that aren’t coming out stories. We need more stories that show how difficult it to be other but that really celebrate how beautiful that otherness can be,’ he said.
‘And for me that’s Run really does achieve – for a minority religious group, or a minority ethnic group, that actually [you] can love and can count on that, and that there’s nothing odd about being LGBT apart from it just being your own identity.’
Although he is not practicing himself, Tom also believes there is a way to be both religious and LGBTI, and to reconcile both identities.
‘People often talk about religion being a very personal thing for them,’ he said.
‘So once you take it outside of the systems at play that might challenge your personal freedom, I think you can have a new relationship with that religion that allows you to be both queer and religious.’
He has seen it happen with his friends, too. Some, he said, are queer Muslims; others are Jewish and queer, or Catholic and queer.
And although they might seem to oppose each other, they managed to hold onto both identities.
‘It can work,’ Tom said.
‘So therefore, who is anybody else to tell them they can’t?’
Run runs at the Bunker Theatre from 20 March to 2 April.