I would like to preface this article by saying that I am a cis-gender individual and that, while I do my best as an ally, I make mistakes and am still learning. If I say anything word-wise or representation wise that is incorrect, please let me know. It is not your job to teach me what I might be doing wrong, but your voice is important.
I had the wonderful opportunity to see Charm at Mixed Blood last night. It’s the first play I’ve seen at the theater in a long time – too long. It’s a very timely production and one that is much needed, especially here in the Twin Cities.
I was told by a friend that this production had been done in Chicago but did not cast according to representation. That production cast cis-gender people (or people who identify with the gender they were born with) in roles meant to represent trans-gender people. This received many negative reactions from individuals who wanted to see these roles performed by people who actually represented these identities. In Mixed Blood’s production, the show was cast mostly this way, allowing trans actors to take on roles that are not often seen. This show represents not only their personal story but also stories of people rarely seen not just onstage but in all other media forms.
I’d heard complaints about some of the acting in this show not being up to par because of the faithful casting, but, if this is an opinion you hold, it should be seen as an issue with the actors. This is an issue with the acting community as a whole. There are not many opportunities for trans actors – either they don’t get cast for roles that exist or there are no roles available to them. They may not have as much experiences or the same kinds of experience as other actors simply because fewer options exist for them. If I were to audition (God forbid) for a show, I would have no trouble being cast according to my gender and sexual preference. The same cannot be said for those who are not cis-gender or even heterosexual. While we may live in one of the “gayest cities” in the US (at least as of 2011) and Minneapolis is making great steps to accept LGBTQA identities, there is still room for improvement and we are still under the influence of what large opportunities can exist in a nation that apparently is terrified of who might be in the bathroom stall next to them.
The wonderful thing about having a community like ours is that we can make our own rich, theater scene and create new chances. We local playwrights can write new roles for different identities, people who have these identities can write their own work, directors can begin to consider different methods of casting. However, we have to want to do this not just because social justice compels us to, but because we want to and because we truly care, whether our patrons are going to care or not. Trust me, I’ve heard the onslaught of discomfort of people trying to understand (or flat out refusing to understand) trans identity. They argue that it’s biology, that you can’t base such large social changes on feelings. To which I’d like to remind you that racism also used to be (and still is, by some) backed up by biological differences. The fact of the matter is that feelings ARE important – any psychologist and neuroscientist will tell you that. If feelings are irrelevant, then there’s no reason I should feel angry when people misidentify people’s gender or refuse to use their correct name, or treat someone as less than equal because they identify with a certain gender (I got catcalled on the way to Mixed Blood that night and spent much of the evening being an deeply annoyed feminist). And it’s more than just a feeling – it’s knowing you are what you are, regardless of your biological sex. There’s more than one way to do things, Charm tells us, and there’s more than one way to be a man, woman, agender, and just a human being in general.
What I love about Charm is how much it packs into the show. Not only does it deal with the intersectionality of race, class, gender, and sexuality, it also deals with fissions within the LGBTQA community itself. There are misunderstandings between the character Mama Darleena, a trans woman, and D, who is agender and uses the pronouns they/them. Darleena cannot understand why D doesn’t “pick a gender” when she has fought so hard to be recognized as a woman. D cannot understand why Darleena is focused on charm, when it represents a method of oppression to them. Charm speaks to the different attitudes towards surgery for trans individuals and how some deeply desire it while others want to be accepted by who they choose to be regardless of their body. There are discussions of violence towards one another in the community, especially through the character Beta, who is part of a gay gang that assaults trans people. It also deals with the confusion of trying to make your identity known and feeling that you don’t know who you are. Lady, a trans girl who is struggling with her identity, powerfully represents this and shows the struggles of becoming who you are when living in a society that won’t accept you. The show doesn’t always deal with these dense issues smoothly, but there isn’t really a way to deal with it without out a bit of messiness and complexity. Being human is complicated but we all want something very simple – to be accepted and to belong. Charm conveys this important message beautifully and makes a place for people who are different – and that’s what theater has always done and will continue to do.
Charm is playing now through May 8th at Mixed Blood Theater in Minneapolis. Ticket and show information can be found on Mixed Blood’s website.