SALT LAKE CITY — The 20th anniversary season of Plan B Theatre Company will kick off tonight with Julie Jensen’s She Was My Brother, a song of sorts for the transgender people from this nation’s past who have often gone unrecognized and who have been excluded from history. It is a fitting play for this task. Well-written by one of Utah’s most talented playwrights and well-performed by a stellar cast, this is a show to see if you want to experience the type of theatre that moves your mind in different directions, that causes you to question popular assumptions regarding culture, fear, and identity. It is a play in which history is re-examined, turned on its head, and made the object of appropriate ridicule. Jensen poses: had it been written differently, how could history have changed now?
The drama is loosely based on three historical people of Victorian America. Matilda Coxe Stevenson, the first female anthropologist in America, is mirrored in the character of Tullis played by April Fossen. Jay Perry plays Wilson, the character modeled after Frank Hamilton Cushing, a Native American anthropologist who spent five years living in the Zuni Pueblo in Western New Mexico. Lamana, played by Joe Debevc, is based on We’Wha, a man who lived in the Zuni Pueblo in the 1880’s and who dressed and behaved as a woman. The play opens, as is typical of Jensen’s work, with strong character scenes in which the plot is not immediately apparent (And it is meant to be so. The reader may benefit by not reading the following inadequate plot synopsis). Tullis and Wilson engage in an argument over the transportation of the fatally-sick Colonel, who is married to Tullis but who is also the object of Wilson’s love. In the end, Tullis is victor, and she leaves with her husband, commanding Wilson to stay and document the lives of the Zuni people. After unseen trials, Wilson meets Lamana, discovers his transgender identity, and falls in love. Tullis returns to the pueblo a widow and after a time also discovers that she is uncommonly drawn to Lamana. She invites Lamana to accompany her to Washington D.C. where she introduces him as a woman to the President of the United States in addition to other political dignitaries (a trip that We’Wha did make as an ambassador for his people). They successfully return to the pueblo but discover that Wilson will be making his departure to the sadness and regret of Lamana.
In writing this simplified outline of a plot, it is impossible to communicate the deft exploration of lingual, gender, and cultural boundaries that takes place in this drama. Jensen is a master of succinct scenes with dialogue that reveals as much between the words as in them, and this play is a shining achievement in this area. The story unfolds as the characters live it, and there is a great sense of intimacy between the small cast and the audience as love and self are discovered. While it could not be said that the play is about romantic love, it is there. Helped along by the lyrical poetry of Walt Whitman included in the play, Jensen’s characters waltz into a sentimentality of their own that seems as tragic as it is victorious.
It could not be said that this waltz of sentimentality is acted sentimentally. Fossen and Perry expertly capture their multi-faceted characters in strong performances. Fossen creates a consummate nineteenth-century feminist, and the pace of her character development is carefully crafted, slowly attracting the sympathy of the audience. Perry, too, nails a performance of a physically and mentally ailing Wilson. Both Fossen and Perry have the difficult task of communicating their characters’ personal sadness and instability while serving as representatives of “civilized” society. They must convey the abnormality of accepted and promoted behavior of our nation’s past and, to a large extent, it’s present. Debevc assists in this task, taking on the role of a transgender Native American who is the most “normal” being in the show. Without playing into the “stock Indian” of theatre history’s past in which broken English accompanies characterization based on savagery or stoicism, Debevc simply conveys the sense of peace that must have existed in the Zuni pueblo where We’Wha was revered instead of shunned. His acceptance of his own male and female attraction stands in marked contrast to the bewilderment and anxiety conveyed by his counterparts. A multi-faceted performance, Debevc also communicates Lamana’s own sense of love, loss, and complete misunderstanding of the anthropologists that invade his life.
Jerry Rapier’s direction is, as always, exceptional. The dialogue is fast-paced, the humor delivered flawlessly, and the staging simple. At 85 minutes without an intermission, the play moves through like a storm, displacing long-accepted notions, evoking important questions, and leaving you hungering to know more. It is the kind of show that could be seen twice and one that will have you thinking all night.