Mayor Jacob Frey proclaimed April 28 “Trans Artist Day” in Minneapolis. Day? More like Trans Artist Month.
“Mermaid Hour: ReMixed,” in which parents conflict over care for their transgender daughter, opened this weekend at Mixed Blood Theatre. So did Illusion Theater’s “The Pink Unicorn,” a solo show about the mother of a nongender-binary child. “Twisted Deaths,” featuring a trans lead, will have its world premiere April 20 by Uprising Theatre Company. And “On Our Own Terms,” a salon and festival of short plays staged by trans performers, is April 28 at Mixed Blood.
Combine that with what’s happening elsewhere in the culture — trans-themed “A Fantastic Woman” nabbing the Academy Award for best foreign movie, Andrea Jenkins winning a seat on the Minneapolis City Council, “Strong Island” filmmaker Yance Ford becoming the first openly trans Oscar nominee — and you have the sort of trendy groundswell that Malcolm Gladwell might be all over.
Or maybe not.
“I still don’t know if I would call it a tipping point,” says trans actor/playwright/teacher Jay Owen Eisenberg, who is leading the mini-fest at Mixed Blood. “When I started transitioning six, seven years ago, it was all just starting to be talked about and it’s been much more present recently, so it makes sense that more of our stories would exist on stage.”
One reason trans artists are more visible: larger venues. While small organizations have been founded to spotlight trans themes — Uprising, for one, and 20% Theatre Company, which has focused on trans and female artists for more than a decade — mainstream organizations are stepping up.
“It wasn’t founded as a trans organization but Mixed Blood has made increased space available,” says Eisenberg, who chairs the theater’s trans advisory council and appeared on stage there two years ago in “Charm,” a drama about homeless trans youths.
“It’s fantastic that more trans stories are being told and more trans artists are getting work,” he said, “but I don’t think it extends to the quality of life yet. Some cis people [i.e., those who identify with the gender they were assigned at birth] still have terrible ideas about trans people. If they see some of this theater, as we have seen with other underrepresented groups, maybe that will help make them feel differently.”
That’s the hope of playwright Elise Forier Edie, whose “Pink Unicorn” is all about a naive mother with some of those terrible ideas.
“It’s an innocent perspective, so I have an opportunity for her to learn terminology, reasoning and, along the way, sort of teach the audience,” says Edie.
Her own child, Gray, came out as nonbinary in middle school. Gray, who is now 26, prefers “they” pronouns to the “she” ones that were assigned at birth.
“What I believe Gray was doing was grappling for a way to find their identity, and not having the vocabulary or experience to explain to themselves what was going on,” says Edie. “I was puzzling through it, too: What does it mean if you’re not a boy or a girl?”
Edie thinks kids who are coming out and their parents are the sweet spot for her play, which stars Kate Guentzel: “Again and again, I am brought to my knees by the courage of trans kids. To say, ‘You need to call me Gray now and I am going to go to middle school as a boy?’ I am still stunned.”
‘Terms’ of engagement
“On Our Own Terms” is reaching out to people who are familiar with trans issues and those who are curious. The event will open with a Trans 101 and move on to two short plays with trans performers in both trans and non-trans roles, concluding with “Mermaid Hour: ReMixed,” a musical about families and identity that includes two trans/gender nonconforming actors.
One of them is Catherine Charles Hammond as Crux, an elusive, nonbinary character who helps a trans girl and her parents.
“One thing I love about the play is that I do think it could be an accessible entry point into considering what the experience of a trans child is, for people who haven’t considered that before — and it’s about this specific trans child,” says Hammond, who will also co-host the “On Our Own Terms” salon with Eisenberg. “We are presented with these characters, living their lives, and we witness some of their journey but it’s not wrapped around a ‘narrative of transition’ in a simplistic way.”
Avoiding oversimplification is also a goal with “On Our Own Terms.”
“It was an interesting puzzle to fit together the pieces that would present a variety of tones,” says Hammond. “The conversations the [advisory] council had are reflected in how Mixed Blood is publicizing it on their site, being very specific about not just being ‘trans theater.’ That’s so broad, to try to slap together a category or genre of art and present it as if it’s a single, self-explanatory thing.”
Confusion about where people fit on a gender continuum on which “male” and “female” are not the only options means many trans people get attacked about their identity. But they also deal with aging, health care and the same issues everyone else does. That’s a theme in the upcoming “Twisted Deaths,” in which a young trans man and an older woman who seem to come from completely different worlds bond over something they share: cancer.
“It’s about how we connect to each other in spite of differences but also it’s about our health care system, the right to die and who has agency over our bodies,” says Shannon T.L. Kearns, the transgender playwright who founded Uprising Theatre Company in 2015 and created “Twisted Deaths.”
Signs of change
Both Kearns and Eisenberg worry that increased visibility of trans people brings increased risk, particularly for trans people of color, but they see positive movement in the theater world.
Both Uprising and Mixed Blood are committed to authentic casting, meaning trans roles are played by trans performers, something that’s not always the case. (Skylark Opera’s recent “As One” cast two cisgender performers as a trans person.)
Casting notices at many theaters in town — large and small — now use inclusive language, encouraging actors with different identities, abilities and races to audition.
“I have been doing a lot of [trans roles], so it’s nice to be given the opportunity to be treated like any other actor,” says Eisenberg, who just played a sheep and a sprite in “Constance in the Darkness” at Open Eye Figure Theatre. “My body on stage is political. It’s always a statement. But there are times I want to be able to take a break from being the trans person in the room and just be Jay.”
Including trans performers in auditions is great but Eisenberg thinks theaters can go further:
• Making sure trans performers are comfortable at those auditions, for instance, by asking which pronouns to use (Eisenberg and Kearns prefer “he/him,” Hammond opts for “they/them”).
• Offering affordable tickets (something done by both Mixed Blood, with its Radical Hospitality program, and Uprising, with nightly pay-what-you-can rates).
• Even revising that “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the theater” announcement that may not make nonbinary people feel welcome at all.
Luckily, Hammond says there are lots of places where trans people can be sure they’re welcome, including 20% (which has a festival of new work, “Queer Stages,” next month), Gadfly and the hugely popular Daddy.
“It’s a big old party with a big old variety show in the middle,” says Hammond. “There’s a D.J. and a packed floor of people dancing and having drinks, and then someone will come on stage to read spoken-word poetry or a short story or erotica and the audience will get silent, but then there’s burlesque or drag, and they’ll be cheering and throwing bills.”
Uprising attempts to address both its audience’s hunger for entertainment and its social needs, partnering with local organizations and encouraging audiences to get involved: making greeting cards, for instance, for Transforming Families Minnesota, which works with trans youth.
“We’re really trying to convert the empathy that is generated by theater into concrete action. That’s why I started the company,” says Kearns, who says he grew up with one pop-culture trans reference point: “Boys Don’t Cry,” a movie that seemed to indicate that coming out as trans was a path to being assaulted and possibly killed.
“The power of seeing trans bodies on stage, playing trans characters, is really, really important, both for representation and for the message that trans bodies belong in these spaces,” says Kearns. “Trans people can tell their own stories, with the depth and beauty of great art.”