The 12-year-old was having a hard time at school, but didn’t have the language to talk about gender fluidity with her mother. So the Ogden youth plunged into an awkward conversation about how stupid other kids were being about pronouns.
Instantly, her mother, a lesbian who is a prominent Utah gay-rights activist, understood what the conversation was really about, recalls Liggera Edmonds-Allen, a 17-year-old known as Geri. “‘Oh: Do you want me to call you they/them?’ she said, and I was like: ‘Yes! I think I am transgender,’” says Geri, now an Ogden high-school senior preparing to make their professional stage debut.
Geri will portray Max, a young transgender character at the heart of playwright Taylor Mac’s “Hir,” a dark domestic dramedy receiving a regional premiere at Salt Lake Acting Company. The Utah run is one of six professional productions across the country this season.
Stories about gender fluidity aren’t new topics for Utah’s professional theater companies, but SLAC’s production is thought to be the first local show to feature a transgender actor playing an openly transgender character.
This kind of authentic casting marks a forward convergence for transgender people in popular culture nationally, thanks to the prominence of the Matrix filmmaking team, formerly the Wachowski brothers, now Lily and Lana Wachowski, as well as TV stories ranging from “Transparent” to “Orange Is the New Black.”
Geri underscores the issue of representation in combating Utah’s accelerating rates of youth suicide. “When I was younger and figuring out I was transgender, one of the hardest parts is there was no one who looked like me onstage or on TV,” Geri says. “I didn’t know the word transgender. Nobody talked about it.”
In the past, physical safety for a transgender actor might have been a consideration. And moving beyond that issue is just one of the reasons representation in storytelling matters, says Sue Robbins, board chair of the Utah Pride Center. Robbins and Lucas Fowler, of Transgender Education Advocates of Utah, helped SLAC recruit actors to audition for the part.
“I feel it’s very important that trans people play trans characters because it folds into how people perceive us,” Robbins says. “We need the truth onstage. I know in the performing arts we bend the truth for the purpose of the story, and I think when different communities are marginalized, we don’t want to bend the truth.”
Getting preferred pronouns right has also been a complicated layer in rehearsals. The playwright, who performed in Utah last year, has selected “judy” as a personal pronoun. In “Hir,” the character of Maxine, transitioning to Max, chooses a combination of “her” and “his,” pronounced “here.” Geri, assigned female at birth, identifies as “agender,“ or without gender, and prefers “they” and “their” as personal pronouns.
Acknowledging pronoun choice isn’t any different from calling a musician like Sting by his nickname, rather than his given name of Gordon Sumner. “For transgender people, it’s even more important, as it’s an affirmation of who we are,” Robbins says.
A plot outline doesn’t begin to convey the jarring tonal shifts of “Hir.” It’s set after Isaac (Austin Archer), a meth addict, has been dishonorably discharged from military service in Afghanistan. Everything at home is upturned, as his mother, Paige (Chrissy Summerhays), is in revolt against the patriarchy, specifically her formerly abusive husband (Richard Scott), now a stroke victim slumped in the corner of the living room. He’s dressed like “some tranny clown,” says Isaac when he first sees his father.
The story is set in the iconic heart of Americana, a suburban living room, and “then Mac turns the stereo up on every issue you can think of, and then there are moments of genuine heart,” says director Tracy Callahan.
Geri describes the script as “absurd and just absurdly real,” while Callahan uses descriptions like “tornado” or “circus” to describe the action in this dysfunctional family tale. “I’ve never seen anything like it onstage,” says Callahan, who in her day job is a theater professor at Weber State University. “It’s a new voice and a new time, and I’m thrilled to be working on it.”
The transgender character becomes a voice of hope within the chaos of the play, Callahan says, as the playwright uses gender as a metaphor for Americans’ cultural fears. Mac doesn’t make it easy on theatergoers, because issues of gender fluidity, which might be as old as time, aren’t easily accepted by contemporary mainstream culture. In the same way, culture “doesn’t make it easy for any transgender person in our society,” the director says.
Through Max’s transition, the mother discovers a new way to live. “To think of America’s present moment as a transgender character, as someone going through transition and redefining language and understanding, feels right,” Callahan says.
“Mac himself is a pioneering figure in terms of questioning gender norms, but it’s refreshing that he can poke sly fun at the extremes to which such discourse can be taken,” wrote Charles Isherwood in his 2015 New York Times review of the play, which became a surprise hit in its off-Broadway debut.
“This isn’t just a media conversation,” says Brooke Horejsi, executive director of UtahPresents at Kingsbury Hall, which presented Mac’s show last year, adding the playwright is thrilled to know “Hir” is receiving a Utah production.
“Gender fluidity, and our perception of it, and our conversations around it, are happening at dinner tables, on college campus, in grocery stores,” Horejsi says. “We’re talking about it all over, which is why it’s so great to also have it happening on our stages and our TVs.”
Geri’s understanding of transgender issues is important to their embodiment of Max, but almost as important is the actor’s authenticity of what it is to be 17, Callahan says.
Geri was always interested in theater and has performed in high-school shows and at Ogden’s Good Company Theatre, but it can be complicated to make decisions about exactly which parts to audition for, they say. Which is why Geri began writing their own scripts and creating theater workshops for Parity, a national faith-based gay-rights nonprofit, which Geri’s mother, Marian Edmonds-Allen, an ordained minister, directs.
For Geri, the role is a chance to bring together an interest in performance, as well as gender issues. Geri adds: “It’s an important conversation to be having.”
Taylor Mac’s ‘Hir’<br>When • Previews Feb. 7-8; opens Friday, Feb. 9, and continues through March 11; 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday; 1 and 6 p.m. Sunday. Additional shows: Tuesdays, Feb. 27 and March 6, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, March 10, at 7 p.m.<br>Where • Salt Lake Acting Company, 168 W. 500 North, Salt Lake City<br>Tickets • $24-$43, with discounts for groups, students, seniors, and patrons 30 and younger, at 801-262-7522.<br>Also • SLAC is partnering with the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition and Transgender Education Advocates of Utah. A panel discussion on the play’s themes will be presented around 3:30 p.m. on Sunday, March 11, after the 1 p.m. performance. The public is invited to attend the panel.