Just one month before Washington D.C.’s Mosaic Theater premiered its play “Charm,” it announced a major casting change: Cisgender actor KenYatta Rogers stepped down from the lead role playing a transgender woman, replaced by transgender actor B’Ellana Duquesne.
Mosaic Theater is the latest major player in the art world to confront the extent to which identity should influence artistic representation.
Last fall, students at Reed College protested a speech by Boys Don’t Cry director Kimberly Peirce, upset that the gender-fluid, lesbian filmmaker had cast a cisgender actor to play a transgender role. And just months earlier, novelist Lionel Shriver drew international attention with her claim that writers must be able to pen characters who do not share their gender, sexual orientation, culture or other identity.
Mosaic Theater’s newest play—directed by Natsu Onada Power, whose work deals in gender and performance– is about a transgender woman in her 60s, Mama Darleena Andrews, and her charm school for homeless transgender youth.
“We’ve come to feel that the lead role of Mama Darleena really will be best served by a transgender actor, no matter how amazing we know KenYatta Rogers, a cisgender actor, can be in the part,” said the theater’s founding artistic director, Ari Roth, in a news release announcing the switch-up. “Empowering a trans actor to drive the show is a way of undergirding the message of empowerment in this play.”
That’s a controversial perspective. Applying that same principle elsewhere in theater would be profoundly limiting; after all, actors by nature perform roles portraying characters unlike them.
Even Duquesne, the actor now playing Mama, isn’t a dead-ringer for the character, identifying “as a gender-fluid and [going] by the male name and persona Jack Eng about 20 percent of the time,” the Washington Post reported.
Duquesne’s views on the matter are also complicated: “As an actor, I feel that acting talent is independent of gender,” she told the Post. “Cisgender actors can play transgender roles, and I want to be able to audition for cisgender roles. But as a political activist, I understand the desire, maybe even the need right now, to cast transgender actors in transgender roles.”
Thursday was the play’s opening night, and none of the actors involved were available to comment. But Mosaic Theater’s spokesman, T. Chase Meacham, said the theater decided it was an important time to give transgender artists the chance to tell transgender stories.
“Representation is something we take very, very seriously, and we explore the political and artistic ramifications of those castings, staffing and hiring choices all the time. …. We don’t view it as limiting of what we can do artistically. It’s more of a re-imagining of how we can tell the stories we want to tell in a way that’s connected with the subject matter,” Meacham said.
— Jillian Kay Melchior writes for Heat Street and is a fellow for the Steamboat Institute and the Independent Women’s Forum