When Utah playwright Matthew Ivan Bennett set out to write a play about a woman in the process of becoming a man, he soon discovered that dramatizing transgender themes was every bit as fraught and wary as introducing them into casual conversation.
The fact that he interviewed numerous transgender people in person and online helped, of course. It just didn’t make writing the script any easier.
Plan-B Theatre’s ‘Eric(a)’
When » Feb. 28-March 10. Thursday and Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 4 p.m. and 8 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m.
Where » Studio Theatre, Rose Wagner Center for the Performing Arts, 138 W. 300 South, Salt Lake City.
Tickets » $10-$20. Call 801.355.ARTS or visit planbtheatre.org for more information.
What began as an idea for a three-person play in November 2010 morphed into a different setup. When that draft stalled, Bennett gave the idea a rest. It wasn’t until actor Teresa Sanderson suggested Bennett consider writing a one-person play, a suggestion relayed by Plan-B Theatre Company producing director Jerry Rapier, that Bennett started a third draft, which became "Eric(a)." Even considering his prodigious playwright’s pen, Bennett counts it as perhaps the most difficult play he’s ever written.
His play hits the cultural zeitgeist at a time when transgender stories are being told more frankly in popular culture, such as those of Chaz Bono and "Matrix" film director Lana Wachowski going public after years of being known as Chastity and Laurence. For Bennett, the interest was more personal, never sensational.
Bennett’s play opens Feb. 28 at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, with noted Utah actor Sanderson in the title, and only, role. "It was the most collaborative process we’d all been part of," Rapier said. "And it exposed a truth in theater that we sometimes forget: That is, the more specific you are, the more you reveal universal concerns."
And somehow the play’s difficult birth seems all too appropriate, given the walls that arise when a transgender person announces to friends, family and the world that the body he was born with is a source of intolerable unease. Eric, the stand-alone character with only the whisper of a vowel to remind him of his past life, covers it all and more in the course of Bennett’s hourlong play.
It’s the blistering, honest and aching testimony of someone who spent 50 years as a married mother before embarking into the life of a man for three years and counting. "I’m discovering I really, truly, deeply do not have the certainty other guys have," Eric says. "I’ve been too weak to even say that to myself."
"Eric(a)" comes with an explicit educational angle, Bennett’s accompanying 17-point "Intellectual Defense of Trans Experience," Eric’s essay and declaration to an outside world that’s either bemused, amused or bigoted. And there are times when the monologue pauses for humor, describing what it’s like for a trans man to pass airport security through a scanner. "I was a hermaphrodite member of al-Qaeda," he jokes.
The monologue takes its own twist on romance, as Eric describes a woman he’s fallen for — "with a laugh like a Gypsy guitar and the skin of a Spanish Jesus" — but with whom he can’t decide whether to be honest.
"She’s taller than me, even in flats, but I pass — which makes me sing the ‘Hallelujah Chorus,’ although, as you might know, it’s a catch-22. They see me as a man, I feel seen, but worry about being called a liar later on; if they see me as a woman, I feel invisible; if they’re unsure what I am, I feel invisible."
By play’s end, "Eric(a)" has become a story about honesty and the courage of being true to yourself, the vital ingredient to standing true before the world.
"I wanted to showcase the story about a person trying to socialize as a man," Bennett said. "I felt pulled in by people who’d felt they’d been men all their lives, but had no practice in it. That interested me, because all my life I’d also been trying to be a man."
Although the weight of the play rests entirely on Sanderson’s shoulders, "Eric(a)" is also a play that involves and implicates its audience, immersing them so fully in the psychological world of a transgender person that the story reverberates with intimacy. "The audience has to be a big part of this," Sanderson said. "It’s a play that makes you go to different places."
"Eric(a)" reminds its audience, transgender or not, of the universal sentiments we all carry when we feel out of place, out of synch with our roles in society, or ill at ease regarding some aspect of our physical appearance.
Rapier predicts the play will strike some or all of the notes in people — and many more.
"Once Teresa gets this down, she’ll need to grab hold of it with both hands. This is a play that’s going places," he said.
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