Time magazine declared a “transgender tipping point” in 2014 when it featured actress Laverne Cox on its cover. In the two years following that proclamation, mainstream media and pop culture attempted to follow suit. TV shows and movies like Transparent and Tangerine garnered critical acclaim and media buzz, but not all of it was positive. Despite increased portrayal of trans characters in media, the people creating and playing them remain predominantly cisgender.
There’s been increasing public outcry about the use of cisgender people to tell transgender stories. When cis male actor Eddie Redmayne was cast as a trans woman in Tom Hooper’s 2015 film The Danish Girl, the internet exploded with disappointment, spawning thinkpieces calling the choice “regressive, reductive, and harmful.” Even more recently, the announcement that actor Matt Bomer would be playing a trans woman sex worker in the film Anything led to a repeat disappointment and fear that trans women being portrayed by cis men would only add to the transphobic belief that trans women are “really” men. And lest we forget: According to GLAAD, 2016 has been the deadliest year on record for trans people, especially for trans women of color.
When big-budget Hollywood film and TV projects with plenty of resources at their disposal can’t make the effort to cast authentically, it can seem as though no one is learning. On a smaller scale, however, some are breaking with this pattern.
Vertigo Theater Company’s new play Street Children is one of those casting successes. It centers around a group of young people, largely queer and trans youth of color, played by actors who actually fit the bill. They have found their home in each other and on the piers of the West Village in the 1980s. Upon the untimely death of their “house mother,” the remaining community members attempt to keep their chosen family together in light of loss, familial struggle, addiction, homelessness, and other hardships. In between scripted scenes, there are vibrant vogue sequences, a dance style that originated from the Harlem ballroom scene, an underground subculture consisting largely of queer and trans people of color.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the West Village’s piers were a popular spot for homeless and marginalized youth to congregate. Those who engaged in sex work would also often find clients there. Street Children is running at the New Ohio Theater on Christopher Street, just a stone’s throw from those very piers. Though the area has gentrified, it is still considered a home base for many queer and trans people.
Casting authentically was something the play’s writer Pia Scala-Zankel and director Jenna Worsham set out to accomplish from the beginning, and they did not back down from that goal. “When Jenna and I were first talking about the show,” Pia tells me over the phone, “we both felt incredibly committed to [the casting] being the truth.”
“It took multiple audition sessions to make that happen,” adds Jenna. “But we found out, which is something we kind of already knew, that the community is very connected. So when a few people knew, they were able to tell people they knew, and slowly we were able to assemble this incredible ensemble.”
The 15-person cast includes Eve Lindley of Mr. Robot; “gender non-conformist” JP Moraga; trans actress MJ Rodriguez, who recently appeared in Luke Cage; and trans stage veteran Cece Sauzo, among several others. I bring up that it’s refreshing that the team did not cast one or two trans performers and pat themselves on the back for doing so, as if to fill a quota.
“There’s definitely this kind of tokenism happening, as well, in the arts at this time, particularly with trans casting,” Jenna says. “So it’s a tricky thing, where we can start to feel like one is enough, but it’s not nearly enough. And it’s not [just] having more parts available for gender-fluid and trans actors, it’s reimagining what parts you can cast them in: getting to cast them in cis parts as well.”
Casting accomplishments aside, at first glance it seems like this play could fall into some of the same traps as some oft-criticized trans portrayals. Namely, both the writer and director are cis white women. But rather than simply plopping trans and queer actors and actors of color into a rigid prewritten mold, the Street Children team invited the performers to bring their own stories and experiences into the rehearsal room. This sharing environment then shaped rewrites of the script, from language to plot points. While the script in performance frequently felt clunky or overdramatic, the importance of the stories being placed onstage usually outshone the awkward dramaturgical moments.
“I knew how important it was to going to be once this cast was assembled … [to] be able to make sure that the story was authentic and was telling those stories in the correct way, in the way that [the cast] wanted to put out there,” says Pia.
“Pia came in with this awareness of not being a woman of trans experience, [which meant] that a lot of education was necessary. Even bringing me in, I’m a gay woman, but I’m not a woman of trans experience,” the play’s director Jenna Worsham explains. “We had to come in with an open mind and say, I don’t know, can you teach me? And I think that created this very important trust in the room where everyone [saw that] their story was valued and important and was going to be just as important in authenticating the story as all the other elements that go into making theater.”
Worsham, who identifies as an activist as well as a director, calls Street Children “as much a community engagement project as it is a commercial theater production.”
“I think all theater should be a platform for change and visibility, but particularly a piece like this that’s sort of unearthing a history of a community in New York that’s usually under-recognized, especially for the cultural things we borrow from this community,” she tells me. “So there was a great potential to not just show up how far we’ve come in terms of LGBTQ rights, but also how much we missed, how much we didn’t see, how much things haven’t changed.”
Not only has Street Children engaged with queer and trans folk in their cast and creative team, it has also partnered with several local activist organizations providing resources for marginalized LGBTQ people: the Ali Forney Center, the AntiViolence Project, the LGBTQ Center, the Stonewall Community Foundation, and the Trevor Project.
Several young people from the Ali Forney Center’s LEAP work readiness program were brought on as interns for the show and were present for the rehearsal and production process. Representatives from these organizations will also conduct talkbacks.
Another result of the tactics Pia and Jenna have employed with Street Children is that the play’s audience has deviated from the typical, largely insular theater crowd. Though they tell me they’ve had theater friends come to the show and be surprised at how much they learned, they’ve also seen people from the vogue and ballroom scenes at the show.
“To have them come in and actually feel like they are with you in the story was basically the biggest and the highest praise that I could feel for the work as a whole,” says Pia. “To have that happen, to have them come in and be moved and feel that it does represent something truthful is everything.”
Vertigo Theater Company’s Street Children, written by Pia Scala-Zankel and directed by Jenna Worsham, continues at the New Ohio Theater through December 17.