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Mostly transgender cast makes for a special Southern Comfort

It’s not exactly a secret that the right wing of this country despises transgender people. Since Trump came to power, as a matter of fact, the National Center for Transgender Equality has counted more than thirty separate actions from his administration targeting LGBTQ people and especially transgender people, whom he is trying to “erase” by changing laws and rules to legislate them out of existence (as if that could be done). Perhaps, then, it is fitting that in 2016, the year he was elected, a long-in-development musical about transgender people had its opening in New York. Southern Comfort, based on the 2001 Sundance Film Festival award-winning documentary of the same name, follows a transgender man named Robert Eads and the people he has brought together as a “chosen family” after they each have, to one degree or another, been rejected by their biological families. The result, in the film, was a powerful portrayal of late 90s trans life in the deep south (the story takes place in Georgia); in the musical, we see the same story play out with the addition of a country music score that adds more depth to the tale.

Pride Films and Plays is bringing the musical to Chicago for the first time (previews begin on 2/28 at the Broadway Theatre), but there is a major twist. For the first time, Southern Comfort is being performed with all trans actors in the trans roles. Annette O’Toole portrayed Robert in New York, but North Homeward, who plays the role in PFF’s production, sees this new cast as being more inclusive.

“(O’Toole) has a lovely singing voice and is a very good actor, but she should never have gotten that part,” he says. “We’re now building a theatre community that is very representational. We showcase members of the community that rarely get the opportunities. It is an empowering show.”

Other cast members agree.

“Media and film and theatre have not been giving us the chances; especially in film, when we can’t play characters that are trans and we usually can’t get cis roles anyways,” says Benji Flores, who plays Sam, one of Robert’s chosen family.

Kyra Leigh, who plays Lola, a trans woman who is just becoming comfortable with herself (and Robert’s love interest), feels that the casting is important for audiences, the majority of whom are likely to be cisgender and will be “seeing these stories told from a more authentic lens; it’s very different when the person you’re playing on stage represents a part of you.”

“It’s a story that has been a long time coming. It needs to be told, and people need to hear and see that Trans people are just like anybody else and we deal with all of the same stuff that cis people deal with,” says Lizzy Sulkowski, the non-binary actor portraying Jackson, who sees Robert as a father figure.

Flores adds that “it’s great to be able to show the world that trans people can be ‘normal people’–we can be happy, we can be sad, we can be sexy, we can be anything that any other person can be.” This is especially important, he feels, when “a lot of films, etc. that have trans people have a sort of tragic backstory trope that happens when that isn’t always the case. We’re not always sad and we’re not always struggling to be human beings.”

That doesn’t mean that everything in Southern Comfort is perfect. “Even the chosen family implodes a bit,” Homeward says. “Family is not perfect. And the most important thing isn’t that this is a trans story but that it is a family story, painful and bright and funny and driven by relationships. I want people to love these characters as much as I do…and yeah I want them to cry.”

The crying will come about because of the characters’ relationships with their biological families as well as with each other.

“There is a scene that gets me the most,” Homeward says, “where Robert’s girlfriend has to tell his parents that he has died.” (No spoiler there; we know he has terminal ovarian cancer practically from the outset.)  “She has this conversation with people who don’t see their son or know him as a human being. They refuse to see him as he was. I see that scene and I am reminded of my late husband and his mother. She never appreciated the person that he was. A lot of us in the trans community have that situation. But we’re often lucky to find new families. That element of love and choice is resonant with a lot of us.”

Leigh agrees. “We’re exposing ourselves, letting audiences in to see our world; it just is never the truth (with any family) to say like we’re all united, etc. Still, you don’t want to give anybody a reason to paint marginalized people in a villainous or less than charming light. The hope is that audiences will see that they are people: if they are acting this way it’s because they are going through something rough.”

Leigh, who hails from Louisiana, recognizes this story and these people. “I think I’m the oldest cast member; I remember when the documentary came out. I was out as a queer person in the 90s in the South so I remember how it was. My parents–I was raised in a very evangelical environment–so the parallels with characters with not being accepted by family members; it hits a very intense place inside of me, that feeling of repression and being trapped and being able to have a community and escape. What I’m hoping is that this play will help humanize the trans experience. Hopefully audiences will walk out thinking, what can I do to be a better person, not just to trans people but to everybody, and to sort of create an environment where these things will be gone and we’ll get to that perfect Star Trek future where everybody loves each other.”

Not that she is deluding herself that it will be easy. “Things like misogyny, homophobia, transphobia are so ingrained in our society–I have even had to battle my own inner transphobia.”

Sulkowski hopes that the play will show cis people that they have nothing to fear. “I take my shirt off onstage and I’ve had top surgery and I had a moment where I realized that there will be people in the theatre who have never seen trans bodies. I’m interested to see how people will react to that. It’s definitely vulnerable but the whole team has my back in that moment, and you should be seeing this; these bodies aren’t scary and aren’t really different from yours.”

Part of what makes this show work, of course, are the songs. Written by playwright Dan Collins along with Julianne Wick Davis, they definitely alter the flavor of the piece.

“There are songs that make me cry just by listening to them,” says Homeward. “It’s intensely beautiful.” Leigh says that the music works because “it’s grounded in folk/country/bluegrass and it never gets too cerebral and takes you out of the heart of it; it invites people to come into the story.”

Sulkowski agrees. “The song that gets me the most is “Bird,” which Lola sings, and it’s about how she sees herself on the inside and how society sees her on the outside. Someone has written down the words that you have felt, that you weren’t ever able to express yourself.”

All of these performers are well aware of the political implications of doing a show like this in 2019.

“We’ve just been banned from the military,” Homeward says. “Bills pop up to keep us from changing gender legally, adopting children, keeping our TG children safe; though this story is twenty years old it is so relevant; they come together against the bleakness of the outside world. We have a lot more protections now than we did twenty years ago, but there are still a lot of things that are the same.”

Sulkowski is angry, but is turning it into a kind of inner strength. “Like everyone in the community I am angry (about politics),” they say.  “But with every passing day, as more and more terrible things happen to trans people, I become less afraid to live out loud as myself. Putting this story onstage makes me feel so powerful. This whole show is about being yourself, and the way it is told through music is so well done. It’s about time we put stories like this onstage.”

“Unfortunately,” Leigh adds, “I feel like when things are going great there is complacency: when we had Obama we felt like things were going well and it would continue. But you know there are lots of people who don’t understand people of color, immigrants, and the queer community and are afraid of us and think of us as the enemy. We still have a lot of ground to cover.”

Flores too sees the vital importance of this production. “Especially with Trump constantly trying to erase us, putting this show on shows that we have always existed and are not going away any time soon.”

Homeward agrees, and says that this is one of the most important aspects of the show. “We are reaching a place in theatre where we are trying to represent this world as it could be. More and more companies are trying to look past what is the norm (straight white cis people) and find all of these stories from these communities.”

And it is empowering to tell a story that feels very familiar to all of them. Sulkowski says of Jackson: “When I first took on this role I was kind of turned off to the character because he has some levels of misogyny and internalized transphobia toward himself. A lot of queer trans people experience that; the fact that he grows as much as he does reflects my life.”

Flores too has connections to his character and the story. “My life very much aligns with Sam’s life. In the play, Sam has to go home to visit family and he can’t go in the door without shaving because they won’t allow him in. I’ve actually had to deal with that in my family.”

But it is Robert Eads, the “father” of this makeshift family, who embodies this familiarity the best. “Robert feels like an ancestor,” says Homeward. “There is a subset of pagan spirituality that focuses on ancestor worship, calling on people from the past that you feel are connected to you by blood or other connection. Robert feels like an elder of the trans community.”

It’s a community that has only recently begun coming out of the woodwork. In the late 90s, most people had no idea what “transgender” was. Today, despite the plethora of laws seeking to do them harm, trans people are far better understood than they ever have been. More than half of Americans favor equal rights protections for them. And though that percentage has slipped a bit in the Trump era, knowledge can not be unlearned. The country is experiencing a backlash now, but shows like this one, with its ability to show audiences that trans people are just people, make a difference. Sulkowski has seen it in their own relationship to their family:

“When I came out, the language for it wasn’t in them. But we are growing; we’re leading into it a lot, and I sometimes need to be firm about my identity but they seem to be handling it very well. Today, they are interested in my changes rather than turned off by them.”

“I see myself in this so much,” Homeward says. “There are moments of joy and pain that seem familiar. When Robert says how thankful he is to spend life with his chosen family, I feel that.”

“It’s really about people dealing with their own personal demons,” says Leigh. “Hopefully people (audiences) can see parallels of some kind of universal relationships.”

Southern Comfort will be playing at the Broadway Theatre of Pride Arts Center. Opening night is March 4. Tickets can be purchased on the website.

About the author: Karen Topham was the first school teacher in America to transition from male to female on the job. The year was 1998, the same time period as this play. She taught for another eighteen years at the same school. North Homeward is her son.

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