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Casting conundrum: transgender or cisgender?

Local production rides the line between positive portrayal and misrepresentation

“The Home Team,” which opens at Riverwalk Theatre Thursday, has a secret.

And that secret is proving controversial.

The secret involves the transgenderism of one character. The controversy is whether Riverwalk has been sensitive enough to the transgender community.

City Pulse won’t reveal which character is transgender because, as the playwright, Kim Carney, said in an interview:

“One of the great things about the play is that it has a such a secret. If you ruin that for the audience, it’s just such a lesser experience.”

But, spoiler alert, if you read on, you may well figure out which character.

Carney said the play came from two places.

“Back in the ‘90s, I saw an episode of ‘Oprah,’ and she had on this couple, and the woman was just absolutely gorgeous. The man was a Cuban-American, and she was a transgender. She never told him, and they married. After they got married, he found out she was transgender. The Cuban community was very macho ,and his family was very macho, and he tossed her out,” Carney said. “And then, over time, he realized he loved her. There was no other woman for him, and they got back together. I thought that was such a touching story about love.”

The second place Carney was inspired from was a family she knew.

“They take the place of the family that’s in the play,” Carney said. “I put that circumstance of the woman who he loves into the family. They are all very macho and Wayne (the lead) is very macho — he’s a ladies’ man.”

The controversey stems from the decision to cast a cisgender person in a transgender role. Cisgender is a term for someone whose personal identity and gender correspond with the sex they were given at birth. Some are saying that this decision was a poor choice that does not lend authenticity to the part.

Emily Dievendorf is the is the president of the Lansing Association for Human Rights. She agrees with this sentiment.

“From what I can tell, I don’t think there is an issue with the plotline, but any issues that were brought up with us, LAHR, we agree should be questioned. It had to do with the lack of engagement with the transgender community,” Dievendorf said. “It was more of an ethical conundrum for us. I don’t think it was a question of lack of good intentions.”

Director Emily Clark admits that she did not go out of her way to cast a transgender actress, but said that the last thing on her mind was to offend anyone.

“There was no malice or forethought that, ‘I’m not casting anyone transgender,’ of course not,” Clark said. “That’s why I’m doing this play. If we turn it into an issue that makes a difference, then it will do the exact opposite of what it is meant to.”

But Dievendorf ’s thoughts are echoed by other members of the transgender community. Rachel Crandall-Crocker is the founder of the Transgender Day of Visibility and a LGBT civil rights activist. She said that she appreciates Clark’s attempt at portraying the transgender community in a positive light, but that it could have been done with more care.

“What I would have wanted the director to do would have been to reach out to the trans community and let them know they wanted to put on the play and asked them to come out and audition,” Crandall-Crocker said. “A lot of people are really trying to cast trans people in trans roles. And we would have liked for this director to at least have involved the trans community in the play in some way. It sounds like that really was not done.”

Carney — who is cisgender herself — researched the play through interaction with some members of the transgender community. She said that in a perfect world, the ideal character for the role would be a transgender woman — but she said that it’s not always possible.

“I have to say, this play was produced at the Open Book Theatre Co. in Kalamazoo, and the director was a transgender woman. So, she knew the whole talent pool of transgender people in Kalamazoo, and she chose to cast a (cisgender) woman. She said that this character at this time is woman and she is, herself, a woman,” Carney said. “That’s how she felt about it. She said her past doesn’t define her.”

Controversial as the topic is, Riverwalk Theatre’s President, Jeff Magnuson, said in a discussion with Dievendorf that he recognizes that the play wasn’t approached with a broad enough view.

“He said the best thing that the head of an organization that struggles with missteps can say, ‘We want to learn. Tell us what we can do. I just want to listen. Can you come in and teach us, give us the training, help us to do this the right way the next time and talk to our board?’” Dievendorf said. “Our response to this is, absolutely.”


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