The play’s the thing, but the actors are an issue tooEntertainment News, Online Only, Section 4A Tuesday, April 25th, 2017
That was the foremost question I had when Matt Harding, general manager of Diversionary Theatre, reached out to me via email and asked me to promote their upcoming world premiere of Ballast, a trans-centered play.
I had to know. As a trans woman and activist, I wasn’t going to promote a play if cis people are playing the trans characters. While trans actors such as Laverne Cox, ‘Orange Is The New Black,’ and Jamie Clayton ‘Sense8’ have broken ground, it’s still pretty common for cis actors to play trans characters. For example the new movie ‘3 Generations,’ stars Elle Fanning as a transgender boy. And regardless of how trans positive Ballast might be, trans actors need our support just as much as the stories need to be authentic.
And I must admit that Harding’s email response did not allay my fear. “The trans characters are appropriately cast from within the community,” he said. Was he hedging? From within whose community, I thought: San Diego, or the LGB community or the trans community? So when I met with Harding, I immediately pressed him to be specific.
Yes! The trans characters in Ballast are played by trans actors. Maxton Miles Baeza plays Xavier, a trans youth, and Dana Aliya Levinson plays Grace, a trans woman. Both are at the center of Ballast, which revolves around their relationships with their cisgender partners. The challenges faced by each of the couples as Xavier and Grace transition are central to the play. But it also explores personal identity and how gender norms can play a role in shaping perceptions for both trans and cis people.
On April 19th, there was a special preview of the play during which the actors read from parts of the script. A couple of weeks before, I had the opportunity to read the script in its entirety. Before promoting the play to the trans community, I wanted to make sure that I thought it was authentic, particularly since Ballast was written by Georgette Kelly, a cisgender woman. During the preview, I learned from Kelly that she had been in a long term relationship with a trans woman, which had given her insight into the challenges and issues faced by transgender people.
For me, reading the script for authenticity proved to be an academic exercise. I was constantly on guard for anything that might seem gratuitous. But seeing and listening to the actors interpret the words was truly exciting and inspiring. Trans stories were being told in a way that seemed much more creative and made me feel really comfortable.
In my opinion, Ballast is very authentic. And the play is funny, poetic, and informative. And it’s also refreshingly up to date, a reflection of how far we’ve come as a trans community. For example, twelve years ago the trans themed comedy-drama ‘Looking For Normal’ ran at Diversionary Theater. The performance was promoted as a “moving play about sex change.”
While I did not see ‘Looking For Normal,’ the review I read that was written at the time reminded me of the Amazon comedy series Transparent. The focus was on a family coping with the shock of a trans person coming out. And like Transparent, ‘Looking for Normal’ audiences witnessed the stages of transformation from masculine to feminine, such as the first time the trans character puts on a dress. And, yes, the trans character was played by a cis man. This reinforced the trope in the audience’s mind that trans women are men in dresses.
Ballast is uniquely different in that the characters’ trans identities are not overly hyped or sexually exploited. While the play touches on some typical themes related to transitioning, the production also explores many of the nuances of gender. For example, it asks the audience to consider how our society’s gender expectations affect trans and cis people alike.
The trans community should appreciate the way the play presents us. The audience I was with enjoyed the humor that comes with recognizing our common experiences.
And cis people really need to see Ballast. At last week’s special preview during a question-and-answer session with the actors, an older gay man in the audience confessed that he and his friends had always “kept their distance from the transgender community.” But I could tell that the cast, particularly the trans actors, had won him over. He finally saw us as just regular folk.
Ballast is directed by Matt M. Morrow and also features Dana Case, Jennifer Paredes, Skyler Sullivan and Jacque Wilke. Ballast plays from May 4th to June 4th at Diversionary Theatre. For additional information and tickets go to http://diversionary.org/ballast/
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