Exploring differences — and sameness — through the real stories of trans women
CAMBRIDGE — One way to start finding common ground is to talk about what makes us different.
“Trans Scripts: Part I, The Women,” a verbatim play drawn from interviews with transgender women around the world, focuses on some of the specific difficulties faced by trans people. But its ultimate goal is the opposite of marking out the trans community as something strange and different.
“I did feel as though there was an otherness to the trans experience” at the outset of the project, playwright Paul Lucas says. “But I began to see everything about my life reflected in these people’s lives, and their lives reflected in mine.”
Lucas interviewed more than 75 trans women in six different countries, he says. “Trans Scripts” presents seven of them, with actresses performing direct address to the audience in a series of monologues of various lengths. As seen in rehearsal at American Repertory Theater, where performances of the show run through Feb. 5, the stories flow together, sometimes underlining the women’s shared experience and sometimes showing points of difference. This production is its US premiere.
“At the end of the day all of us are human beings. It just so happens that we’re different types of human beings,” says actress Mj Rodriguez, who plays a trans activist named Luna.
Rodriguez, who identifies as a trans woman, says she hopes this piece will prove educational for those who have questions about the transgender experience, but the ultimate aim is to get past using gender identification as a means of trying to understand someone. “After people see this, I would hope they try to understand — now I get it, now we can move forward in our lives and understand that [trans people] are no different from anybody else,” she says.
“Trans Scripts” is the first full-length play that Lucas, a theatrical producer, has written, and the show’s production at Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2015 was well received (as yet, there is no “Part II: The Men” in the works, though Lucas hopes to get there someday). At ART it is being directed by Jo Bonney, an Obie Award for sustained excellence winner who previously helmed “Father Comes Home From The Wars (Parts 1, 2 and 3)” at the Cambridge theater (as well as in New York and London).
Lucas and Bonney, who are both cisgender — which means simply that their gender identification corresponds with their biological sex — say they went to great lengths to cast the seven roles with trans women. Though they have mostly done so, they prefer not to publicly cite the number of trans women in the cast or identify them as such. They’d like the performances to stand on their own.
“It was simply not imaginable that we wouldn’t search far and wide to cast trans women,” Bonney says, but “we don’t want people sitting there in the audience going — oh, those are the male actors. They wouldn’t know [otherwise].” There’s also the potential issue, Lucas says, of outing performers who may present professionally as one gender but live privately as another.
Actress Bianca Leigh, who identifies as a trans woman, says the majority of trans characters on stage and screen should be played by trans actors, but that the conversation is about more than scorekeeping the number of roles cast.
“If they’re not going to use a trans person in that role, acknowledge that they have to give back in some other way,” she says. “If a regional theater is going to do a play about a trans person written by a cis person, have you read plays written by trans people? Can we send you some? Are you doing anything for the community? Are you doing talkbacks?”
In the case of “Trans Scripts,” the ART is indeed following up performances with a series of moderated discussions featuring experts in the field. The theater is also presenting a series of performances at its second stage, Oberon, grouped together as the “I.D. Festival,” with musicians including Alison Young and the Swinging Steaks, Our Lady J, and Calpernia Addams; a slam poetry performance by Kit Yan; and other artists who explore ideas surrounding gender identity. (The I.D. Festival runs Jan. 22 to Feb. 4.)
The stories in “Trans Scripts” deal at times with bullying, family acceptance (or lack thereof) of gender, problems in the workplace, and the difficulty of getting appropriate medical care related to transition. But the examples of tribulation are balanced with examples of victory.
“It should not be a pity party,” Lucas says. “I think it’s very important to honor the struggles of trans people without going to the easy thing that happens with any disenfranchised group, and saying: Oh, the poor, tragic trans person. I could have picked out all the most horrible stories and laid them out all in a row and the audience would have sobbed for three hours, but I’m not serving the community by doing that.
“I’d be getting people to feel sorry for these women,” he says, “rather than actually seeing them as fully rounded human beings.”
Trans Scripts: Part I, The Women
Presented by American Repertory Theater, through Feb. 5. At the Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle St., Cambridge. Tickets start at $25, 617-547-8300, www.americanrepertorytheater.org
Presented by American Repertory Theater, Jan. 22-Feb. 4. At Oberon, 2 Arrow St., Cambridge. Tickets 617-547-8300, www.americanrepertorytheater.org