Thursday, March 24, 2016

SOUTHERN COMFORT: Musical Explores the Lives, Friendships, and Loves of a Self-Declared Transgender 'Family'

Aneesh Sheth and Jeff McCarthy in Southern Comfort
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Remember Urinetown, the satirical musical that depicted a dystopian society in which strict laws controlled the use of restroom facilities?  

I thought of Urinetown when I read the story in today’s New York Times about a law passed earlier this week by North Carolina legislators barring transgender individuals from bathrooms and locker rooms that do not match the gender identified on their birth certificates.  

Picture the gender police standing outside of every public restroom examining the birth certificates for everyone wishing to enter – a kind of TSA for toilets.  From an SNL skit perspective, it’s funny stuff.  From the perspective of transgender persons, not so much.  

Transgender, the long-neglected “T” in the struggle for LGBT rights, is starting to gain public attention, not only with the passage of such insane legislation (expect a plethora of civil rights lawsuits), but with the very public coming out of Caitlyn (nĂ© Bruce) Jenner. For once, reality TV may be contributing to an important social change.  

Now we have a “transgender musical,” Southern Comfort, playing at the Public Theater, based on Kate Davis’s 2001 documentary film of the same title about the final year in the life of a transgender man who most ironically was dying of ovarian cancer. Southern Comfort (with book and lyrics by Dan Collins and bluegrass-inspired music by Julianne Wick Davis), depicts the lives of its central character, Robert Eads (Annette O’Toole), and other members of a tight-knit transgender community in the “Bubbaland” of rural Georgia. 

Clearly a labor of love (Robert Dusold and the show’s director Thomas Caruso are credited with conceptualizing the musical), Southern Comfort earns kudos for its important contribution to the public’s growing understanding of what it means to be transgender.  

Unlike notions of “gay” and “straight” (or even “bi”), being transgender is not about whom you are attracted to sexually. It is about who you are – as determined by you, and not by anyone else, and certainly not by your genitalia. To be clear here, a transgender man is someone who was born with the biological makeup for which we typically assign the term “female” yet who self-identifies as male. Likewise, a transgender woman is someone who was born with the biological makeup for which we typically assign the term “male,” yet who self-identifies as female. It is how you address this dichotomy that takes all of this out of the realm of an interior “secret” to a public presentment. 
The strength of Southern Comfort (the title refers to the annual conference for transgender persons and supporters; the 2016 conference will be held September 27-October 1 at the Ft. Lauderdale Convention Center) is in the diversity of the characters and in the issues it addresses. As it says on the actual Southern Comfort conference website:  “Whether you’re a transsexual, cross-dresser or in between; a spouse, partner or family member; straight, gay, bi or omni-sexual; post-op, pre-op or non-op; young, old; married, single; FtM or MtF – if transgender is an issue in your life, WELCOME!”

Let's back up to that part about “post-op, pre-op, or non-op.” That’s the piece that is central to the musical, and, really, to the lives of all transgender individuals. Hormones, double mastectomies, phalloplasty, vaginoplasty, breast implants.   These are difficult decisions that have personal, medical, social, and political implications no matter what decision one makes. Robert Eads (in real life and in the musical) opted not to have his ovaries removed and paid the ultimate price for that decision. On the other hand, the transgender man he thinks of as his adopted son Jackson (Jeffrey Kuhn) intends to have a phalloplasty, a decision that causes an irreparable rift between the two of them.  

There is also a character who is not ready to commit to surgery or hormones.  Robert’s girlfriend (touchingly portrayed by Jeff McCarthy), she calls herself by what sounds to be a drag name, Lola Cola, and sometimes lives her public life as John, the name she was born with. But she considers herself to be a transgender woman, a tiny bird trapped in the body of a tall and hefty man. (“Bird” is the name of one of the show’s more memorable songs, sung by Lola Cola and accompanied by the onstage bluegrass quartet, doubling as storytellers).  

Rounding out the cast are Aneesh Sheth as Carly, a very confident and self-assured transgender woman and Jackson’s girlfriend; Donnie Cianciotto as Sam, a transgender man; and Robin Skye as Sam’s wife Melanie, the only non-transgender member of the inner circle and someone who talks about the path that took her from a homophobic upbringing to finding her true love.

The significance of the story of these characters ought not to be undervalued, and the Public should be commended for seeking out transgender actors to take on some of the roles. 

Unfortunately, something has been lost on the way from thinking about the social justice message to the shaping of the material into a musical for the stage. Sadly, the book is overwhelmingly pedantic and the songs, while pleasant enough, fail to reveal much about the characters (with the exception of the previously mentioned “Bird”) or to move the plot forward.  

Theatergoers have been hit with a number of sincere message shows that fail to rise to the level of their themes, like last season’s Mothers and Sons, or this season’s Amazing Grace or Allegiance.  The same can be said of Southern Comfort. Great theater can certainly teach us great lessons, but it is not a schoolroom. It’s hard not to care about Robert and Jackson and Carly and Lola and Sam and Melanie, and to appreciate the heart-felt performances of the actors in those roles.  But if you want a model to emulate when telling such an important story, try Fun Home

Feel free to share this blog with your friends, and to offer up your own theater stories by posting a comment. I also invite you to check out the new website Show-Score.Com, where you will find capsule reviews of current plays from Yours Truly and many other New York critics. 

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