Monday, March 31, 2014

Do you know what it's like to be a short/white/straight chick with funny toes?

When I was sixteen I remember waking up from a vivid dream with sweat pooling in the palms of my hands and a questioning fear that I couldn't shake for nearly a year.  You see within this dream I was in a relationship with another girl, a girl I knew, not a close friend, but a friend none-the-less the dream, I was very much in love.  And as I awoke from this dream I couldn't help but question if this was revealing something about myself that I hadn't otherwise known.

The year was 1997, and although I'm quite certain I knew about homosexuality, I don't believe I had any personal encounters with it, yet. Sure, there were a few characters who were suspicious candidates for the profile but it wasn't a time when teenagers felt comfortable about "coming out." So, there really wasn't anyone I felt comfortable talking with about this new fear.  At least there was some comfort in knowing one thing...I was most definitely attracted to boys (or A boy) as I had carried on a crush for one boy, in particular, for nearly 3 years. But I'd never kissed a boy, nor had I had any kind of romantic relationship of any kind. So what does a young girl do with a dream like this? (I'm certain if the Internet had developed google to the point of what it is today I would have found some answers online...) But, since that didn't exist, I did the only thing I could think of doing, which was to privately and secretively explore these feelings.  I only had one class with the girl so I made the most of what I could.  And when we broke into groups to discuss something I made sure to join her group and sit especially close. I even remember inviting her to tag along with my friends to the movies once or twice. I tried so hard to conjure up the feelings I had had in the dream, I was almost forcing them...but I couldn't replicate anything. I tried to find the attraction for nearly a year...I wanted to be sure, I didn't want to deny myself this understanding. But in the end, I found myself more attracted to any boy in her vicinity than I had ever felt in her presence. And when a boy finally kissed me a year later, all thoughts of liking girls romantically fled my mind entirely.  It was only a dream, nothing more.

I didn't choose to be straight. Nor did I choose to be short or white or born with the weirdest toes on the planet. These aren't choices one can make before coming into the world. Much like the title character Brahman/i (in the new co-production by About Face Theatre and Silk Road Rising directed by Andrew Volkoff) didn't choose to be born a Hijra (a South Asian term for hermaphrodite or intersexed).

In my adult years I have become more than comfortable with the LGBT movement, I have been a friend, an ally and an advocate. Heck, my son road on a float in the Chicago Pride Parade with me when he was only 8 months old! As an actress, I've played a fair number of lesbian roles and kissed more than a handful of women on stage and in scene studies.  In college I even performed in a play about a hermaphrodite. But I have never before felt that I could completely understand what it must be like to live everyday in the mind of someone who doesn't fall within the social norms of "heterosexuality." And the truth is, I probably never will completely know what that is like. After all...I'm straight. But I will say this...nothing has helped me dissect the idea of what it might feel like to be in the head of someone who falls outside of those norms more than the preview performance I saw this afternoon of Brahman/i.

Staged like a stand-up comedy act Brahman/i takes the audience on a journey growing up as an Indian/American hijra. Aditi Brennan Kapil's sharp and witty script uses comedy, mythology and history as a mechanism to make the unfamiliar and potentially uncomfortable material accessible to all. Kapil could have easily taken this story and staged it into a normal two act play, but because she chose the vehicle of stand-up comedy, we were able to hear how Brahman/i (played with tour de force passion and charisma by Fawazi Mizra) processed through the events of a confusing life in a reflective and comedic way.

It's quite amazing and a bit overwhelming to even imagine growing up and identifying with both genders.  But for Brahman/i that is the reality of the situation. And because Brahman/i relates to both genders, both male and female audience members can relate to Brahman/i's story.

From the moment we are born people start placing us into categories and as we grow those categories begin to expand: male/female, white/not white, Christian/Muslim/Jewish/Buddhist/Atheist, gay/straight, single/married, parent/non-parent, young/old, fat/skinny, short/tall, meat-eater/vegetarian/vegan, rich/poor, Republican/Democrat, corporate sell-out/grunge granola hippy etc, etc. By adulthood we typically make choices that further place us into categories that define who we are as individuals. These categories give us a place of belonging, a community of common understanding...but they are also what separates us as humans.

Imagine someone asking you to choose between being a mother and being a daughter, or between having eyesight or functioning legs. Two things that are inherently part of you that have helped define who you are and how you live, but now you must choose to live without one of them. You can choose to be a mother but in doing so you disown your parents, or you can remain a daughter but you must abandon your children. You can choose your vision but your legs will be cut off, or you can choose your legs but your eyes will be blinded. This must be what it feels like for intersexed/hermaphrodite/hijra people who are asked to choose a gender.  And why must they choose? So that we can place them in a respective category? Why must we have categories at all?  Why can't we all be supportive bass players for one another the way the character "J" (played beautifully by Damian Conrad) is for Brahman/i...playing a relaxing tune while we hydrate our vocal cords...the vocal cords that we need to use and stretch and strain to allow others to hear and understand what it's like to be uniquely ourselves.  Let's face it...we don't all fit into the same exact categorized boxes, no one knows what it's like to be exactly you.  No one. So why must we hide behind these categories that don't truly define who we are? The only thing we all share in common is that we are human...and the only way we can truly connect is if we LISTEN and SUPPORT and EMPATHIZE with one another.

I've often thought about how I would respond if one of my children felt comfortable sharing with me a dream like I had had in high school. It's certainly not something I'm afraid of hearing, but knowing how to respond is a completely different story.  I'm not quite sure what I'd say entirely, but, what I do know is, I will never ask my child to make a choice. Because I will choose to be that supportive bass player, I will choose to support and love my children for who they are, not what categories society has placed them in.

***This is intended to be a response (not a review) to the play Brahman/i playing now at Silk Road Rising through April 27th in collaboration with About Face Theatre.  If you are in the Chicago area I urge you to see is illuminating, hilarious and beautifully done. For more info click here

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