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the future of theatre is trans:

An Exploration of Transgender Identities in Diasporic Communities Through Performance Writing

By Ayla Sullivan

Artists are not meant to provide solutions, but offer the questions that lead society to new horizons through our communal reflections together. When deconstructing harmful, oppressive paradigms, we must look to the source and ask ourselves: what is the truth? Truth is the guiding force for oppressed communities and reclamation of identity can only be successful when truth is investigated. Performance as a genre expands to much more than the stage or the screen, it is how we operate as humans in community with one another and artists are merely those folks committed to exposing performance as a conduit for inclusive problem solving. One of our most performative selves comes from our relationship with gender and once we recognise such a binary understanding of expression is founded in colonisation, other binaries can be investigated and decolonised through artistic pursuits.

Gender for colonised peoples has never existed under the false pretense of “male” and “female” and it is only after colonisation (and its effects causing the creation of diasporic communities) that the collective consciousness shifts towards the values of the oppressor. More specifically, Vietnamese transgender and queer identities have been consistently misconstrued because of racist, transmisic, and homomisic rhetoric created by white supremacist ethnographers. Through such influence, the descendents of the Vietnamese diaspora of course struggle to maintain ancestral knowledge purposefully misconstrued by their oppressors both in documentation and through the literal violence of burning temples. For generations it was illegal in Vietnam to even speak about, let alone embrace queerness and transness.

The truth of Vietnamese transgender identities lies in the stewardship of trans community leaders. Historically and even today, the people preserving Vietnamese culture are transgender people who align with the specific indigenous identity of hau dong. Difficult to fully translate into English, the hau dong identity is a form of non binary, gender non conforming expression in which the individual is essentially engaging in shamanism to pay homage to all the ancestors who live inside them and also allow their body to be a vessel for saints/spirits of all genders during specific rituals and ceremonies. Such magick6 requires the individual to operate outside of the gender binary. However, it is important to make a distinction here from gender performance as the same understanding of gender expression.

Since hau dong requires a deep cultural connection and operates as the radical preservation of culture7 in addition to being part of a trans experience, there is a theatrical quality to how the identity serves a larger community and, from an artistic lens, is inexplicably linked to the survival of Vietnamese people. Trans leaders are the heralds of culture in this capacity and the link to the history of drama is clear: “gender and sexual nonconformity has long flourished, and continue to do so, ...particularly in...genres of popular drama and ritual mediumship” (Peletz, 2009, p. 128). Therefore, it is not a stretch for Vietnamese, non binary artists to engage in autobiographical, performance work today because the preservation of our past leads to the commitment to our future.

I. The Writing Process

Performance writing at its core must answer a very simple question for an audience: why do I need to see this? It is a common argument that representation matters and art must reflect society, but it is incredibly reductive to the nature of theatre to solely focus on the presence of identity and herald it as finished work. The goal of my writing about non binary experiences can never be based upon representation of our identities, as this perspective only serves myself and mirrors how oppressive systems operate. I am not interested in becoming the new face of oppression, nor am I interested in oppressors looking like me. An audience needs to hear a compelling story, an interesting perspective, and they deserve to be fed nuanced, artistic feasts when they engage with performance. The purpose of creating Last Stop is to explore a multifaceted understanding of transness, dedicated to showcasing a spectrum of love, and dependent upon audience inclusion.

In my work, subversion is key when queering performance texts and guides the choice to craft an audience inclusive, queer story rooted in how much a family loves one another and forgives each other, rather than stereotypically end in tragedy. For Last Stop, I wanted to cultivate an immersive theatre experience in a nail salon because the story had to be one that could not be told in any other context or setting. The audience must see this family in the performative environment of a nail salon because they must understand the relationship of the private and public self for every character. They must see how the characters play into or reject the public self in order to be included in the plight of the main character, Nga, and truly empathize with transgender experiences. Inciting real, tangible empathy is what makes this text subversive, rather than talking about transgender experiences for the sake of the audience simply being exposed to the representation of them.

My attraction to immersive theatre comes from my desire to enhance cultural awareness through storytelling that is dependent upon community. The role of the nail salon in society is deeply ceremonial and performative in that the act of beauty preparation is intimate; it is designed to be seen, and both the nail technician and the customer become the witness and the witnessed simultaneously during their designated time together through a series of tasks founded on touch and trust. Moreover, when we realize how nail salons are typically a catalyst for stereotypical understandings of the Asian American experience, the United States’ history of orientalism, its current obsession with exotifying “the Far East”, and the caricature of Asian subservience and femininity; the setting easily lends itself to being a formative character in a play about being a person of multitudes. Again, the work challenges the idea that art about identity can only be about one identity to be successful. The experience of being non binary and removing one’s self from the colonized gender binary will of course lead to removing one’s self from the binaries of being Black or white, American or immigrant, gay or straight. Therefore, creating a work in a nail salon that is site specific and immersive is fundamentally queer and foundationally trans.

Furthermore, the need for the play to take course in a public space begins to include audiences into a setting infamous for being a bilingual space and makes the unknown, (any language other than English) the known (English) in order to inspire both accessibility and inclusion. It is no secret that Vietnamese speakers at nail salons are a caricature in American society and, in some regard, are known performers because they realise their customers are watching them speak a “foreign” language. The nail salon is of course already a theatrical space because nail technicians are being seen as much as they are seeing. Community can then only be created when recognising how the public versus the private self impact and alienate cultural exchange. It is the goal of Last Stop to amplify a culturally acceptable unofficial performance space to a named performance space, which allows the illusion of disbelief to be challenged actively while the action is happening.

Now that the work is finished, an evaluation of the text itself is possible only from a literary lens. The production of Last Stop will premiere on April 20th of this year and largely be focused as a workshop production to mirror professional practice about producing new work. Last Stop’s intent is to explore the multifaceted nature of transness and not be hindered by identity politics or representation for hollow representations sake. As a writer, I feel satisfied in the outcome of the play because it aligns with this intention at present and I look forward to how it will grow and shape after audiences are exposed to them.