“Finally, someone gets it!’

Transgender and gender non-conforming experiences shared through stage readings

Nathan Calkins // The Torch
(From upper left to bottom right) Terrill Thompson, Zem Chance, Rose Downing and Trisha Driscoll perform in the 1998 play “Transfigurations” at Eugene’s Very Little Theatre. The play, written by Eliza Roaring Springs and Deltra Ferguson, follows stories from ten Oregonian transgender and gender-diverse individuals.

In 1998, ten Oregonians who identified as transgender told their stories in a play called “Transfigurations” written by Eliza Roaring Springs and Deltra Ferguson. Two decades later, the play acts as a time capsule for their true stories, now told through the voices of new actors.

On Saturday, April 7, a staged reading of “Transfigurations” took place at the volunteer-run Very Little Theatre. Minority Voices Theatre, a project of the VLT that strives to represent minority and marginalized communities in staged readings of plays, collaborated with TRANS*ponder, a non-profit organization that aims to provide support and resources for the transgender community, to present the play.

This was the first time transgender and gender-nonconforming actors performed in this play, the MVT website stated. When the play was written, it was considered unsafe for actors who were not cisgender to perform.

As the audience trickled into the room, lively chatter muffled the creaks of the wooden floor. Lights on the seats dimmed, and ten music stands to hold scripts were illuminated in the center of the stage. Empty chairs stood behind them until they were filled by ten performers donning a variety of dark and bright colors in their dresses, scarves, skirts, slacks and jewelry.

The play, a mixture of witty dialogue and the harsh realities of being transgender and gender non-conforming in a world in which being cisgender often seems to be the assumed default, invoked hearty laughter at some points and complete silence at others. Each character’s story was unique. Fish, played by Terrill Thompson, is a transgender man struggling with being in a body that is not in line with how he feels, a somewhat similar story to Charlene’s, a transgender female veteran played by Trisha Driscoll, who, at one point in her life, had to juggle three identities: Charlene, her “in-between” identity and “Charlie the soldier.”

The characters also shared experiences of bullying and lack of understanding from those around them. Billie, played by Kamiel Foskey, recounts escaping into a canal as a child to avoid getting into a fight with other children, and Dana, played by Leslie Prieto, describes being told that she would simply grow out of being transgender. Other experiences included job loss, suicidal thoughts, police violence and coming out to family and coworkers, but they were united in a shared search for acceptance and identity. As Travis, played by Zem Chance, puts simply, “What the hell am I?”

After a brief intermission, the six Trans Monologues took place, allowing transgender and gender-diverse members of the Eugene community to tell their personal stories. Five of the six monologues were first-person stories, and all were followed by loud applause from the audience. Rose Downing, who played Jackie in the play, told the story of how her father had locked her in a closet when she was a child for being “too gay,” making her so scared of her femininity that she did not come out as a transgender woman until her father died.

Thompson began his monologue with a humorous anecdote of having half of his body patted down by a man and the other half by a woman in an airport. “Finally, someone gets it!” he said. The Trans Monologues concluded with Oliver Lumbra, a 13-year-old boy, and his mother. Oliver explained struggling to tell his mother that he was transgender despite his family being supportive of the transgender community. His mother, Brooke, concluded, “I love Oliver no matter what.”

MVT was founded by Carol Dennis and Stan Coleman in January of 2017 as a way to respectfully represent minorities as well as include the entire community, not only professional actors. Prieto, for example, had helped start Eugene’s annual LGBTQ and ally prom called Pink Prom and considers herself an ally of the transgender and gender-nonconforming community, but does not consider acting her strength.

“You do it because it’s the right thing,” she said about performing in the play, “not because it’s comfortable.”

Dennis also said that MVT strives to open people’s minds “through the arts [by] speaking to their hearts,” but puts a special emphasis on creating a sense of belonging.

“Find community,” Chance said when asked what advice they would offer to someone struggling with their gender identity. They also encouraged those people to be accepting of themselves, especially since many “trans people think they’re not trans enough.”

“Be patient,” Thompson added, “You don’t have to know today what you’ll be tomorrow.”

Each character in “Transfigurations” reflects the story of an individual and each Trans Monologue did as well. Nonetheless, all stories and experiences were united in a search for self-acceptance and self-discovery, a concept captured in a question 13-year-old Oliver Lumbra posed in his monologue: “I’m a work in progress, but aren’t we all?”

MVT’s upcoming productions, which will continue representing marginalized communities and diversity, will be listed on its website. According to the MVT website, an encore performance of “Now I Am Your Neighbor,” a play about the true stores of Lane County immigrants, is likely to take place in September or October this year.