Chicago-based playwright Lillie Franks' "A Little Bit Not Normal" deals with the strained relationship between a trans woman and her estranged father, who, after years of non-communication, arrives at the home of his daughter, her girlfriend, and their talking cat to mend their broken ties. My partner Jennifer James, who is trans, and I found that the new comedy, which opened Cohesion Theatre Company's second season last week, raised several potent issues that come with being trans, living in a world where that's not widely considered normal, and the difficulty of being a person. (Maura Callahan)
Maura Callahan: What struck me the most about the play was its incredible sense of empathy. From our experience (and the fact that the playwright Lillie Franks is transgender, like her protagonist Devon) it's not hard to empathize with Devon or her partner Nancy (Casey Dutt), who both have trouble coming to terms with the problems Patrick, Devon's estranged father, has with accepting his daughter, who he still sees as his son. But Franks' writing—and John Robert Wright's sensitive acting—make it surprisingly easy to grasp his confusion and frustration, however misguided it may be.
Jennifer James: Definitely, because a lot of what he was saying was frustrating and at times it seemed like he wasn't even trying to change. It's like he says at the end of the play, he was trying to change Devon to fit his understanding, not change his understanding to fit her. However, Devon was far from perfect. I really related to what Patrick says about feeling like he's constantly walking on eggshells. I'm a trans woman and I feel like that sometimes when it comes to dialogue on trans issues. That whole scene—when Devon finally stops holding back and tries to have a conversation with her father promising to call foul at everything wrong he says—captured that back and forth really well. Yes, a lot of what the father said was problematic and Devon was right to call him out, but I also sympathized with Patrick: When a cis person is showing a willingness to understand, even if they still have misconceptions, you have to go farther than just calling out the problematic things they are saying. You have to help them understand why it's problematic. Maybe I'm giving cis people too much slack (Devon is right when she points out the double-edged sword of the anger of marginalized groups is dismissed too easily), but I just don't think aggression is always productive.
MC: Speaking from my obviously different experience, I think empathy can be particularly difficult from a point of marginalization, and it's easy to feel like whoever is on the other end—the point of oppression, or mere ignorance—doesn't deserve empathy. That's what Devon is expressing, I think, when she tells her father she doesn't owe him anything. And maybe she doesn't. But I think the play demonstrates that whether or not people are deserving of empathy isn't really the point. What matters is that empathy is usually, if not always, the best way to come to a resolution, or at the very least, a place where that process can begin. I also appreciated that while there were moments in the play when one was clearly in the right and the other in the wrong, the conflicts between Devon and Patrick were more often deeply nuanced.
JJ: I agree that the nuances in their relationship was a particularly strong part of the play. In fact, I think it also gets at something I didn't like about Nancy's character. In contrast to the nuances of Devon's relationship with her father, I thought the relationship between Devon and Nancy was sort of flat. There were a lot of things I liked about Nancy: Her monologue about coming to terms with being gay in high school and struggling with people trying to separate her from her "gay-ness" stood out to me, and I loved the weird side plot about her being a vampire hunter that just wasn't addressed at all. However, I feel like there could have been so much more between her and Devon. Nancy has a very strong personality, but I wanted her to be stronger with Devon. Whenever Devon sought advice from Nancy, her response was sort of "eh, do what feels right," and the few times she did call Devon out and voice her criticisms, it felt weak. Of course, the play wasn't about their relationship as much as it was about the father-daughter relationship, but there just didn't seem to be much at all going on beneath the hood, so to speak.
MC: Agreed, though for me it's definitely because I selfishly wanted to see myself in Nancy, as a cisgender woman with a trans girlfriend. She was a bit flat, and I didn't see myself in her except we both have asymmetrical hairstyles and we're both vampire hunters on the DL. I was really vibing with Devon's talking cat, though, who's played remarkably well by Martha Robichaud. The play had me when the cat turns out to be dating God—who, of course, is a woman, who struggles with sibling issues with her brother, a dopey version of Superman called Supraman (Fred Fletcher-Jackson). It's like this whole issue of Devon struggling with being "not normal"—being trans might be the most "normal" thing about her.
JJ: Including a personified deity in a play is one of those things that can very easily be done poorly, but I think that Melanie Glickman does a fantastic job playing God. But yeah, the cat might have been my favorite part of the play. One of my favorite moments was when Devon and the cat have an argument about who is more marginalized and the cat sort of wins. Though I think it's worth mentioning that most of the things the cat cited as evidence of her marginalization applies to transgender people as well, like lack of career and education opportunities and even forced sterilization, a process that is still required in a surprising number of countries in order for trans people to obtain legal gender representation, which is super fucked up. In some places in the U.S., sex reassignment surgery is required to change your gender marker, which is arguably forced sterilization. But I also spay and neuter my pets, so maybe I'm the evil one.
MC: I think Kimchi (our talking cat) understands, begrudgingly. So, this is a play about a transgender woman, written by a transgender woman, starring a transgender woman (the talented stage newcomer Erica Burns as Devon), and directed by a transgender person (cohesion co-founder Alice Stanley, who also handled the sound for the play). Now, that shouldn't be a big deal, but considering that the majority of plays (and films and TV shows) produced are about men and written by men and starring men and directed by men and men and men and men, and that trans characters are often played by cisgender actors, it is a big deal.
JJ: Oh yeah. It's unfortunate that that sort of representation is out of the ordinary but, alas, here we are. This goes without saying, but I think that's what made the play so great. The experiences and the relationships felt authentic. Nobody knows how to write and play trans people better than trans people. When these sorts of narratives are portrayed by cis people, you either have horrible, stereotyped trans characters playing to all of the overused and offensive tropes, or the pendulum swings the other way and a character like Devon's father would be played out to be this big, bad evil casting a shadow over the poor, defenseless, "woe is me" trans person so that the cis people in the audience can pat themselves on the back for disagreeing with a character who is obviously in the wrong. No one's experiences are so black and white, not cis people and not trans people.
MC: And the play was really fucking fun. Narratives about marginalized people can often be excessively serious, sometimes for that pat-on-the-back value like you're talking about. Humor is humanizing, which is what's really needed, I think, in narratives about trans people right now. The play was full of great physical comedy—from the cat and Supraman, especially—and there's all these biblical jokes from God; even small details like the T-shirts the characters wear are funny. And with Devon's dad, the play also addressed the way people use humor to handle difficult situations, like he's constantly making these ridiculous dad-jokes and using dramatic voices to break the tension.
JJ: And physics humor! Don't forget about Supraman's Röntgen ray vision! But yes, humor is vital. I've always been one to deal with tragedy and other serious situations with comedy, so I appreciate the play's sense of humor.
MC: And you definitely know all about dad jokes.
JJ: I'm wondering what you made of the whole God-Supraman relationship. It certainly felt important, but I feel like there was a lot going on there that I still haven't totally fleshed out for myself. There was a line in the play when Devon and God are talking about the brother-and-sister relationship and God says something about how "that's how things have always been done." That feels really important to me in the context of Devon's father coming to terms with his son actually being a daughter. This idea of people using the concept of tradition to dismiss the demands of social movements like trans people. I think often you hear this argument that trans* is just some made up trend, when really we've been around for all of recorded history.
MC: The sibling relationship between God and Supraman also normalizes the relationship and conflict between Devon and her father. God's brother is a mediocre superhero who doesn't know his sibling is God, and obviously that's awkward, but moreover it makes non-parallel perceptions of gender seem very real in comparison. Like I said before, being transgender is the most normal thing about Devon, and that's partially what makes this play great. It's a play about being transgender without fetishizing or blowing it up in any way. And the production makes the themes accessible to audiences that may not be fully introduced to transgender issues. There's the witty writing and physical comedy that draw you in, and then there are small things like in the program, there's a section explaining things like the multiplicity of identities under the umbrella term of "trans*" (the asterisk denoting identities beyond the binary of man and woman or trans man and trans woman, like genderqueer or gender fluid) and the difficulties presented by gendered pronouns. But then, it doesn't feel like it educates the audience in the way that a lot of representations of transgender people educates—rather than presenting the story of a trans woman's life before and during transition, and those moments and issues that tend to fascinate or shock ignorant or uninformed audiences (like the medical stuff, too many people seem way too interested in what drugs or surgeries Caitlyn Jenner's getting), Franks focuses on life after transition, and more specifically a parent-child relationship, which is something that almost everyone has and relates to in one way or another. The play educates through that kind of everyday relationship, even if it's strained by issues that are foreign to some.
JJ: Agreed. It didn't need to educate the audience about trans issues because, like you said, it normalized those issues. Yes, Devon being trans was relevant to the play but only because that was just one of many aspects that made her a complicated and unique person. I think that's another product of this being a play with so many trans people involved in the production. Even otherwise positive representation of trans people in pop culture tends to lean on the "special snowflake" trans trope and inflates this single aspect of the character into the only thing about the character. I know this might be a surprise, but trans people are real, and trans people are a lot more than just trans people. That's why there's been a movement away from "transwoman" as a compound word to "trans woman" as two words. A trans woman is a woman, who also happens to be trans.
MC: But while this is not a play about a trans person being trans, "A Little Bit Not Normal" is also not a play about a person who just happens to be trans, like how Nancy is treated as a cool girlfriend who happens to be a vampire hunter. It kind of sits in the middle, like, you know, real life. When a play that involves superheroes and talking cats that date deities reflects real life, it's doing something right. It also comes at an interesting point when there's been a recent growth in trans visibility and awareness. Last Friday was National Trans Day of Remembrance, which has been honored by trans communities since 1998 but has become more public in recent years, especially this year with the rise in reported murders of transgender people, particularly trans women of color. There's also more public figures coming out, more trans people rising to prominence, more dialogue across social media, etc. But it's still something of a taboo, like it probably won't be widely discussed at most Thanksgiving dinners this week, and if it does, it probably won't go so well. I think this is the kind of play that holds well now but will also transition fluidly, so to speak, into the increasingly aware world.
JJ: I think this play is even more important in a time of increased visibility. I have had such mixed feelings about the growth of trans visibility as of late. Don't get me wrong, it's great that more people know what transgender means and I certainly don't want to go backwards at all, but we have to be wary of how that awareness is coming about. I mean, at this point, I think Caitlyn Jenner has done more harm than good. She just plays into the white-washed, "traditional standards of female beauty" definition of a trans woman that plays too well into society's black-and-white understanding of gender. As I keep saying, trans people have experiences as varied as those of any large group of people. And very few people transition like Caitlyn did, but now she's become the standard for so many people who had never heard of trans people before. Devon isn't Caitlyn Jenner. The play isn't about the hardships of transition or the gory details of how she transitioned. It's not even about her transition at all. It's about the hardships she endures because she's a human being and sometimes being a human is hard.
"A Little Bit Not Normal" runs through Dec. 6 at Church on the Square in Canton. For more information, visit cohesiontheatre.org