by China Young
Transgender. Transexual. Cis. AFAB. It is likely that you have come across these and other terms at some point. They are in the news more and more as our nation tries to legislate bathrooms and genitalia, even to the point that the Supreme Court is still deciding whether the prohibition on sex discrimination includes discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. In other words, they’re going to rule on whether employers can fire people because they are trans or gay. The conversation is heated and emotional on all sides. As someone who tries to follow the debate, I have observed a severe lack of listening and an even deeper void of understanding. Fortunately there are people willing to do the work to spread the knowledge, and Martie van der Voort (pronouns they/she) is one of those fearless individuals that has taken the helm of the conversation in their full-length, one-person show, TransFormations. Despite van der Voort only being one person, they/she provides this opportunity to meet and engage with multiple trans people in such a proficient way that I was fully engaged and invested throughout. The discussion of gender identity has become more public due to the attempts by conservative lawmakers to legislate identity, and due to the trans community’s bravery in not only fighting discriminatory legislation but demanding more visibility and awareness. If you have any questions about what being transgender means – whether you are looking for a textbook answer or an experiential perspective – you will be handed an impressive array of learning moments within the course of this roughly two-hour production.
TransFormations is framed as a trans support group. Whether they know it or not, the audience is full of new group members with varying levels of knowledge on this subject. The education begins instantly as van der Voort’s first character, Graciela (she/hers), gently invites us into the group, helping us assimilate to the conversation by giving us facts, definitions, and introducing us to some of the group members. Graciela is the leader of the support group, and though she is not trans herself, she is the parent of a transman. She tells her story first – how she learned that her AFAB (Assigned Female at Birth) child identifies as a man, and therefore is a man. She even discusses the fact that, despite loving her son, she had to mourn the loss of her daughter. Van der Voort continues to introduce us to character after character, all of whom are unique and distinctly channeled through their/her skilled performance. Under the guidance of director Tom Slauson (he/him), van der Voort portrays transmen, transwomen, non-binary, non-transitioning, AND their wives and children – they/she runs the gamut.
We are quickly faced with the question of how one knows they are trans. The response can be simplified to “how do you know if you are right-handed or left-handed? You just know.” We are reminded that the modern world was designed for the right-handed. We are reminded that there was a time when being left-handed was considered “wrong,” and left-handed people were forced to use their right hands to write, eat, play sports, and so on. We are reminded that now, nobody questions the validity of being left-handed. So then, why do they question the validity of being trans? Is that clarity around one’s own identity different from recognizing that you are left-handed in a world where it’s “right to be right,” or at least easier? There are many other questions, just as complex, throughout the show; they are explored with humor, dramatic nuance, and honesty. As someone with trans friends and family, I truly felt like I knew many of these characters in real life. From beat poet and transman Mark, to the angry son of a transwoman, through the revelations made by newly-transitioning Phil (ftm – female to male) and his girlfriend Beth, you will leave knowing a lot more people in and connected to the trans community than you knew when you came in.
In juxtaposition to depth of the material, the technical elements are fairly modest. The set consists of some chairs in a semi-circle, most topped with some sort of clothing or accessory to denote a character’s seat. The lighting, by Emil Lamanda (he/him), is predominantly a simple wash of light, with a couple of strategically-placed instances of isolation. Before the show begins, there is a projector that is used to display images setting the tone of the production. This is valuable because the show is void of sound design, a tool often used to set the mood and help guide the audience through the journey. I did question the need for its use in the middle of the second act, though I appreciated the information it revealed and reinforced. I found the minimalist design to further allow space for van der Voort to fully embody everything about each character, making the show truly about them.
I had the opportunity to have a one-on-one with van der Voort after the performance. I learned that they/she has been working on this play for over a decade.There have been several other performances, but this was the first fully-produced run (and hopefully not the last). When I asked about the spectrum of characters and where they came from, they/she said “they just kept coming out of me,” although they/she acknowledged that many of them were inspired by friends or acquaintances. There is even someone that didn’t make it into this iteration of the show because van der Voort and director Slauson felt the character wasn’t ready for the stage.
TransFormations is a show that does everything I yearn for theatre to do: entertain and educate.
Presented by Something Something Theatre at St. Francis in the Foothills, the run continues through November 17th, with performances on Friday and Saturday nights at 7:30pm, and Sunday afternoons at 3:00pm. Purchase tickets online at https://www.somethingsomethingtheatre.com/ or by calling 520-468-6111.