Hedwig and the Angry Inch covers unusual theatrical territory.
The producer of the play’s recent run in Nelson, Sydney Black, says, “It’s the story of a gender-diverse internationally ignored song stylist from East Berlin who is touring the world. Hedwig is a survivor of botched sexual reassignment surgery.”
Black Productions and Selkirk College ran the piece for nine nights at the Shambhala Theatre in February and will have a final run at the Capitol Theatre on March 27.
The musical, directed by Pat Henman, features local singer and actress Bessie Wapp as Hedwig– a performance that has received a lot of local acclaim–with Sydney Black as Hedwig’s husband.
After each performance, Black and one of several members of Nelson’s transgender community, including Christopher Moore and Ojas Cats, took questions from the audience.
The Nelson Star sat down with Christopher and Ojas to talk about what it was like to do the onstage Q&A. They were joined for the discussion by Sydney Black. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Nelson Star: What was it like for you to get up on stage and talk about transgender issues?
Ojas: I was nervous at first, because you are putting yourself out there. I am pretty out in the community already because of being a business person, but it was still unnerving to get up there. I went up with a photo of myself at the age of fourteen and that was unnerving to show people what I was at birth as opposed to now. But it was also freeing, to be able to say that out loud and for people to be able to hear it and accept it, that was really cool.
Christopher: I was nervous, way more nervous than I have ever been. I do Trans 101 workshops all over the East and West Kootenays through a program I run, Trans Connect, sponsored by CBT and ANKORS. So I talk about this stuff all the time and I have done them in my own town—police, health care workers, service providers, educators. But somehow getting on stage in my own community was very nerve-wracking, but Bessie and Sydney made it very easy, and as soon as I got there I was very comfortable.
I am out everywhere, from the work I do, and there are some places where I am not. I do things in the community where people have no idea. I like it that way sometimes—I don’t have to tell people I am trans if I don’t need to. It is an intimate thing.
Sydney: I felt really confident that anyone in the audience who had anything negative to say would have left far before the Q&A.
Ojas: I could say to the audience now I am passable, and the in-between stages were harder in the community. Being well known, it is always harder when you are in that in-between stage, not really fitting the binary, you get a lot of people pointing and questioning.
Christopher: That makes it stand out and uncomfortable for others. Those are the ones that get beat up, they might lose their jobs and their homes. That happens right here. I work with a lot of people and I know what is going on here.
Ojas: Yeah, the violence happens, when I was in between, I was attacked here.
Nelson Star: What did you think or feel while watching the show?
Christopher I saw the first show but I was not speaking at that one, and I saw each show after that. I was very incredibly moved by the community and that we were showing it here, and that people were doing this play, and wanting to be very inclusive with us, and I am still touched that we live here.
Ojas I saw it five times, and I think every time I was brought to tears. There were parts of the show that really spoke to me and really made me feel happy that this was getting out there, but sad too, sad that it had to come out in that sort of way.
Nelson Star: What kinds of questions did people ask?
Christopher Lots of language questions. We were asked about the definition of “queer,” what the definition of being transgender is. We got asked if we had any trouble at the shows with any of the patrons.
Ojas: I got asked how do I know I am trans. I had questions about washrooms and sometimes I get questions about genitals. I mentioned to people in the audience that I would never ask anyone in the audience what their genitals look like, why would that matter with a trans person you are talking to?
Christopher: They asked about pronoun use, there seemed to be lots of interest from the audience on that, and the pronoun the trans community has been going with is “they” in the singular form, “they, their, them.” Hopefully that will in my lifetime change to everybody’s language. Many languages in the world do not use pronouns that are gendered.
There was also talk about other forms of oppression. The play is very multi layered and there are lots forms of oppression in it—violence, immigration laws, prostitution, cycles of abuse, religion, copyright violation …
They were not all questions, some people would just get up and make a comment about what they saw in the play, and (sometimes it was about) the other forms of oppression.
It was very intimate, because of the way Bessie and Sydney did it, it was inclusive, everyone felt comfortable. People asked Sydney and Bessie how it was for them playing the parts they were playing and their relationship in the play.
Sydney: The audiences were always very receptive, there was not one evening where there was silence or people felt uncomfortable because that is what stops people from asking questions, it is their own fears.
Ojas: They asked if Hedwig would have transitioned.
Sydney: Bessie spoke a lot about the masks she wears as a performer and how that can relate to the masks we are forced to wear or that we choose to wear.
As far as I am concerned this is the most progressive production of Hedwig that is happening in the world. There are no other groups having this dialogue after the show. We had a large group of doctors come to our Trail show and they all left with the pamphlets. (I heard that the next day) there was a huge conversation at the hospital.
Other productions refer to Hedwig as a trangender woman and use the pronoun “she” and that creates the assumption that Hedwig identifies as a trans woman. In our production, Hedwig identifies as a gender diverse individual, and does not align to the binary.
We challenge our community to try to drop the pronouns, see if they can do it. We challenged them and said go home and try and see if you can do it.
Christopher: And that is a good point because that is about self identification. Just because I might see someone walking down the street looking a particular way, I might say, “Oh, they might be trans” but I would not say that out loud. It is up to them to decide how to define themselves, so we can not really define Hedwig.
Ojas: I have had people stop me on the street, they recognize me, and they said, ‘Hey, you did the Q&A, can you answer another question?” So it has got the dialogue going in town for sure.
What I have found is a lot of people’s confusion over the word “trans.” They automatically think it is just male to female to male or male to female but that does not cover all the terms underneath that.
Trans is a very umbrella term so it could be anyone from male to female, female to male, queer, sissyboy, butch, drag queen, two-spirited, cross dresser, you know, many that don’t fit the gender binary.
Christopher: We talked about the binary system. It is not just a trans issue. In terms of seven billion people on the planet, more people are saying I don’t really fit in that box. It doesn’t mean trans, but it just means that I just don’t want to narrow myself into that box.
I have had people come to me and say, “This is the first time I have ever had an opportunity to say, no I don’t really fit in that, I don’t really need to fit in that male box, I am not anywhere on the spectrum under the umbrella but I can look at that as an option for me, not fitting into that binary system.” Several people have talked to me about that since the show, just talking about their relationship to their gender.
Masculinity in this culture is very rigid and defined and hard, and still the Marlboro man. In some other cultures masculinity is soft and soft is strong, and here it is hard is strong or tough. And there are so many people that don’t fit into that, regardless of how they identify.
Ojas: They asked about bathrooms. We put signs up in the theatre bathrooms too, neutral signs on the bathroom doors to get people to think about that, because a lot of people don’t think about that when they go into the bathroom, it is automatic. But when you are transitioning it doesn’t matter which bathroom you go into, its going to be trouble. You have to pick the lesser of two evils.
Christopher: The Vancouver School Board has come up with a very inclusive policy. If a child wants to be called another name that has to be supported in the school, bathrooms have to be supported in the school, and they have to get everybody on board in terms of using whatever pronoun they want used.
I do some of that work here, with teachers, PAC groups and students. Students are the ones that are definitely really on board and some of them are using “they their them” for everyone and not just trans people, and these are kids that don’t identify as trans, so they are way ahead of the game and there needs to be some catching up.
Sydney: We had students come to the show that said they were starting to use gender neutral pronouns and we had two teens who were neutral themselves who got up and spoke during the Q&A period too, which was awesome that they feel so supported in the community and the space.
Christopher: What I got out of the Q&A as an educator is how we need to have more community forums for everyone, not just service providers. It was a mix, I was looking around the first night going, wow, there are drag queens beside me and little old ladies with silver hair and pearls, and all over the map, and they don’t come from a social service background.
Ojas: A young person got up and said, “I don’t fit the binary but am more toward the male side of things,” but people are always asking them, “Well if you are a boy, why don’t you have a penis,” and so they were having a hard time trying to explain that to the other kids. I explained to them that it doesn’t matter what is in the pants, it is what is in the heart and in the soul. That is what matters.
Christopher: And it is a small percentage of transgender people that transition medically and with hormones from one gender to the other. That is a small amount of people within the whole transgender umbrella. Getting familiar not only with the term but letting people self identify.
If someone says they are trans or gender queer, you can ask them what it means to them: “So, what does that mean to you, I have not heard that word before, tell me more about it.”
Ojas: My mother, when I said to her “gender queer,” she was taken aback by that because she said in her generation “queer” was a bad word, derogatory, but now it has been reclaimed as a good word, so I have had to explain that to a few people.
Christopher: There is a lot of intersecting between groups, in terms of race, it is hard to have the conversation around trans stuff and not talk about race. In our society, in our streets, trans women of colour are the ones that are getting beat up, murdered, used for prostitution, they are on the fringe and as a white man that is read as male it is hard to try and talk about that or explain it because it is only in my white terms, but there is a day that is honoured all over the world, and we do it in Nelson, called Trans Day of Remembrance, a day that is for trans people who have been murdered, and when I look at the list it is 99 per cent women of colour.
Sydney: We talked about Hedwig’s gender identity, it was not a choice necessarily.
Christopher: They only way Hedwig defined themselves was as a girlyboy, and so I can not label them in any way other than what they say they are. People who are girlyboys should be able to live in our world and celebrate it and to be the best they can be like everyone else, and if they want to do some form of medical transition or need to, then that too, but we did not get that story from the play.
Nelson Star: Sydney, putting this production together must have made you and the rest of the cast think seriously about these issues.
Sydney: A hundred percent, it makes you question everything. These lines that have been so hard drawn for you your entire life, and to even look at my child—I have a three -and -a-half year old old son who I have not set up consciously any sort of gender norms for, and to see how he defines himself and to think about anyone not allowing my baby to express himself how he wants to, and not love him for who he wants to be, I can not even imagine.
So it is such an important thing for everyone to get on board with, because it is all about community, love, and loving people for being people, no matter what gender identity, sexuality, race. We are all of the same cloth, it is like this video that just was shown all over the internet with the skeletons embracing and then they step out from behind, it is all different kinds of people and you are like, “Whoa…”