"Few things are as devastating as a parent losing contact with her children," playwright Jane Eisner tells The Advocate in a series of conversations by phone and email about her groundbreaking one-act play, Dear Texas,.
The play dramatizes the plight of a transgender parent named Virginia, who loses custody of her son after transitioning to be a woman. The play unfolds with powerful courtroom scenes where Virginia must persuade the court that hostility regarding an individual's gender identity should never be used to foster discrimination.
"[Virginia] enters a Texas courtroom to fight for her child, only to realize that she has stepped into a discrimination case cloaked in a custody battle," Eisner says. "Along the way we encounter a host of characters who are at various stages of transition, identity, and evolution. Ultimately, they all stand united in stark counterpoint to the echoes of a dying past."
Interspersed between the courtroom scenes, audiences meet another trans woman named Nan (played by Emma Peel) who transitions from being an occasional drag entertainer to embracing her womanhood completely. Nan's scenes provide comedic relief, infusing the play's stark, illuminating depiction of familial strife and gender-based discrimination with a wisecracking levity.
Based on interviews with real-life transgender Americans and directed by the Bay Area actor, vocalist, and writer John R. Lewis, Dear Texas, will have its official premiere this Sunday at 1 p.m. at Cal Poly's Chumash Auditorium in San Luis Obispo, Calif., as part of this weekend's Your True Gender conference.
Sponsored by the nonprofit organization of the same name, the conference has quickly become one of central California's premier meeting places for high-level conversations, skill-sharing, and networking among transgender people. The organization and its flagship conference are both founded and hosted by transgender activist Jessica Lynn.
Already registered to capacity, the two-day Your True Gender conference features a who's who of transgender luminaries and trans allies. Among these are media stars such as journalist and best-selling author Janet Mock and fashion model Isis King. Speakers include physicians and attorneys such as Marci Bowers and Abigail Jensen, who have both worked with transgender individuals for many years. The conference's presenters even include a member of the Los Angeles Police Department's LGBT Liason program, Officer Ian Lewis. Panels cover topics including health care, the law, and youth advocacy, with several intensive presentations on the intricacies of gender-confirmation surgeries.
For Dear Texas, Eisner based Virginia's experience on conference founder Lynn's true story of losing custody of her youngest son after she transitioned. Lynn's eldest son, Jeffrey Butterworth, discussed his love and acceptance of Lynn in a stirring article called "His Dad Jeffrey and His Aunt Jessica" for the Good Men Project last year. Butterworth now calls Lynn "Aunt Jessica." As of 2014, Lynn and Butterworth live close to each other in California, sharing a life against the backdrop of their estrangement from Lynn's two other children and ex-wife, who all live in Texas. Lynn's story was also told for the Good Men Project, in an article called "A Father Named Jessica."
A former assistant to the director of the Marin Shakespeare Festival, Eisner studied women and gender studies at the University of Vermont, and worked as an associate editor and staff writer at FourTwoNine magazine, a San Francisco-based LGBT online and print publication. While a fierce trans ally, Eisner identifies as a cisgender woman.
Dear Texas, marks Eisner's professional playwriting debut and she tells The Advocate that she put her life on hold to dedicate herself to the project, researching trans individuals across the nation, and even setting up an Indiegogo page to fund the work. The reaction to the play-in-development has been rapturous, and the Indiegogo campaign topped its own goal, raising $10,710 by September 22.
"I wanted to use theatre as a way to challenge convention and sort of shake things up and so I ended up leaving my job a a reporter to pursue this project full-time," Eisner tells The Advocate. "It was just through my experience with interviewing people, where I was like, I can dig so much deeper, I can really get stories from people and really hear their stories past the snippet of an article online, and Eve Ensler was a model for me when I was young."
Currently based in Oakland, Eisner stresses that she made a commitment from the very beginning of the project to find a cast that included talented trans-identified performers. She enlisted the help of Lewis, the play's director, to hold auditions in the Bay area. Eisner tells The Advocate that among several trans and gender-nonconforming members of the cast, Dana Morrigan (who plays Virginia) is a transfeminine genderqueer person, while Peter Dakota Molof (who plays Virginia's attorney, John,) is a trans, two-spirit man.
After she began writing the play, a few of Eisner's friends asked her if she had heard of The Laramie Project. Based on real-life experiences just like Eisner's play, and written by Moises Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theater Project in 2000, The Laramie Project tells the story of how the small town was changed by the 1998 hate-crime murder of gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard.
Eisner had never heard of The Laramie Project before her friends told her about the play's artistic connections to her own. Once she read The Laramie Project, Eisner realized that her work extends a rich tradition of plays that mine significant stories within LGBT history, making them come alive for the public in fresh, accessible ways.
Towards the end of Dear Texas, the lights dim in the courtroom, and Virginia walks out to the center of the space, turning directly to the audience, repeatedly breaking the invisible "fourth wall" that separates the world of the play from the audience. She speaks about what it means to be discriminated against as a trans woman and a parent by the Texas court system. Her soliloquy is a moving, plaintive reminder of why Dear Texas deserves to be seen. Virginia's words become her letter to Texas. Here's what she says:
"Here's what happened. When I told [my ex] Emily the truth about who I am she couldn't handle it. She refused to see me as myself -- which, at the end of the day, is simply a loving parent. Now, at this point, I still hadn't transitioned and needed to, badly. I needed to transition to survive. Ya get me? So at this time, Emily and I agreed that Todd would stay with her while I transitioned. The agreement was, as we discussed, that after it was complete, he would go back to living with me -- as the court ordered, mind you. Then, out of left field, she moved him to Texas. And that's when I got hit with a court summons requesting the termination of my rights to be a parent, citing the harm I've caused due to my gender change. [...] It doesn't matter what kind of parent I am or what the relationship I have to my dear sweet child is, because no matter what, I will be looked at as sick, deviant, unfit, because of my ambiguous nature. I make you uncomfortable, squeamish, put-off [...] so to you, I'm invisible, aren't I, dear Texas?
In addition to premiering on October 11 at the Your True Gender conference at Cal Poly's Chumash Auditorium, with free admission, Dear Texas, will be presented at the Our Oakland Showcase tomorrow, (October 9) at 9:30 p.m. at The Flight Deck, 1540 Broadway St., in Oakland. Doors open at 9:10 p.m., when guests can begin filling the open-seating following a suggested $15 donation. A talk-back and wine reception will follow. Donations for the play's development are accepted at all performances.