A Detroit revival of the Timothy McNeil play aims to highlight the importance of
By Laura King-Pazuchowski || Feb 27, 2020
Timothy McNeil’s play ANYTHING centers around the infinite possibilities of love and begs the question about the importance of transgender representation on stage. The play follows the recently widowed Early Landry after a suicide attempt. He relocates from Mississippi to Los Angeles to remain under the watchful eye of his sister. Early finds his own apartment in a rough part of LA where his life changes forever as he grows closer to his neighbor, Freda Von Rhenburg, a transgender sex worker.
The play originally premiered in December 2007 with Elephant Theatre Company in Los Angeles and was adapted for film in 2017 where it received criticism for casting a cis-male in the high-profile transgender role. In 2016, Raquel Willis from The Vice wrote a comprehensive article on this casting choice. Willis goes on to explain how casting cis performers in trans roles deprives the already marginalized trans community of opportunity to tell their own stories and contribute their voices to the overall conversation.
This year, ANYTHING is returning to the stage for its Midwestern Premiere with a transgender actress in the role of Freda. This casting decision was made by director T.M. Rawlins and Chris Berryman, founder of Detroit Theatre Collective. “When Tim McNeil granted DTC the rights to stage this in Detroit, his one request was that we cast a transgender actress in the role of Freda,” Rawlins explained. “We were thrilled that we could read enough transgender actresses, and when Sammie read there was no doubt that we’d found the talent we needed. The entire cast is from the Metro Detroit area, and watching their unique talents meld into an ensemble is so much a part of what this theatre collective is about.”
Although the play’s late 90s setting can at times make it feel like a period piece, Rawlins believes that the story is still important. She says, “It’s a timeless play. Yes there are sexual, cultural, political themes that I can point out, but ultimately it’s a love story that offers enough complexity to make it worth staging now.” The text has also been updated by McNeil for this production.
Samantha Rogers, playing the role of Freda, sat down to answer some questions about her own views on transgender representation in theatre and how this play from over a decade ago contributes to the conversation.
Laura King-Pazuchowski: What were your first impressions of the play?
Samantha Rogers: I love the story. Mainstream American society places enormous pressure on men to conform to prescribed notions of masculinity. Though labels describing sexual preference become meaningless when including transgender individuals, ignorance still causes many “straight” men issues in regard to dating transgender women. Convincing men that dating transgender women is still heterosexual is key to advancing the acceptance of transgender people in our society in general. Beyond that, though the play is somewhat dated now in light of all the changes that have occurred relating to the trans world in the last ten years, it still sheds valuable light on the transgender world in a very positive way.
Laura King-Pazuchowski: What about Freda’s experience in the time period of the play speaks true today?
Samantha Rogers: All of it. Virtually every single word. Though each transgender woman faces her own path with her own trials, there are issues within this character that are universal.
Laura King-Pazuchowski: How do you feel the theatre landscape is shifting for trans representation?
Samantha Rogers: In all of entertainment, for too long transgender individuals have been shown as sex workers, drug addicts or been made the butt of tasteless jokes through portrayal by male actors burlesquing our lives. This play, as a now somewhat older piece, still falls into this trap, what with Freda as a sex worker. But, many trans women are still forced into this work, so in that sense there is still accuracy. But, across the board, more and more works are showing trans individuals in more normal circumstances and in more mainstream situations. There is still a long way to go in this regard.
Laura King-Pazuchowski: What is the importance of trans/ non-binary people playing trans/ gender-fluid characters?
Samantha Rogers: Though it is quite understandable and desirable that any artist, regardless of skin color, gender or background, be able to practice their art unencumbered by stereotypes, the truth is that for far too long transgender artists have been denied the opportunity to play any part at all, regardless of gender. In that sense there is an analogy here to other previously marginalized groups. It took many years of white actors playing black characters before artists of color were allowed to do so themselves. To reach a truly color and gender blind area in casting it is crucial that first there be a period where trans artists be allowed to portray them selves ( and cis characters) in order to both level the playing field and also to bring greater truth to the art itself.
The Midwestern Premiere of ANYTHING is presented by Detroit Theatre Collective on March 6,7,8, 12, 13, 14 at Light Box (8641 Linwood Detroit, MI). For more information visit: https://detroit-collective.com