My impulse was to write the last black play ever for myself. I really believed if I put it all into one play, people would leave me alone.
The actors chat about performing masculinity, transitioning, and Blackwell’s one-person show They, Themself and Schmerm.
I first saw them, Becca Blackwell, about eight years ago in Room for Cream, the epic live weekly serial created by Brooke O’Harra and The Theatre of a Two-Headed Calf’s Dyke Division at La MaMa theater. Never mind that that show consistently made me get panicked with undreamed-of pleasure and happiness… but if the cast was a basketball team, Becca was playing center, a position that does a lot of the heavy lifting, thanks to which other players are free to be brilliant, efficient, plain, bright, or whatever, and the story acquires overwhelming forward drive. I was drawn to Becca, as one does naturally fall into areas of gigantic heart.
My friend Melvin in Upper Michigan is a great lover of actors. One of his dearest male idols is the original cowboy silent-movie star, Tom Tyler. Melvin told me once, in explaining why a certain other male superstar didn’t do anything for him, “I like an actor where you can look at them and see their life right there on their face.” And Melvin likes them rough. As for females, he worships the great Marlene Dietrich and, since childhood, identifies with Veronica Lake. Becca is one of my actor heroes. I’ve had to recognize, over and over, that they, along with others like Jess Barbagallo, are reclaiming masculinity, on stage and off, and are putting their body on the line to do so. It’s a carnal embrace that breathes fire into your bones and makes you see that playing a role is real.
Fletcher’s kitchen. Crown Heights, Brooklyn, Spring 2016. (Willie Nelson song playing. Sounds of sizzling food.)
Jim Fletcher Testing, testing. All right. I’m making eggs. I was gonna make an omelet but we don’t have time for that. Omelets, you gotta cook ‘em slow, the way I cook ‘em. So it’s a scramble. Now, I’m keeping this rolling because I want to have it going when Becca gets here. (text message ding) Okay, they’re here. Hey, man, what’s up?!! Let me turn this music down. I was just checking out my hero. Do you know him?
Becca Blackwell (laughter) Scarborough?
JF Yeah, Chuck Scarborough.
BB Really? Jim, no!
JF I identify with him. Look, I got food ready.
BB Damn, Jim! You’re maternal.
JF I’m a single mom.
BB Feminism be gone, patriarchy’s over—Jim Fletcher. Thanks for the eggs, dude.
JF You’re welcome.
BB So what are we doing? We just talk about our feelings and stuff?
JF Well, first of all, what do you have to do today?
BB I have to go up to where I practice my Qigong. I have high blood pressure being on testosterone. Basically, testosterone is like fire; it comes up here and it doesn’t have a place to go. So I learn moves that help me release that fire, redistribute the energy.
JF Does it help?
BB Qigong has definitely altered my reality in good and bad ways. In good ways because I’m doing healing to my meridians and understanding my organs and how they communicate with each other. But it’s shitty because I have a Western mind and rewiring my brain to a Taoist way of thinking is definitely the most radical thing I’ve ever done. I have started looking at the world differently, and I don’t know how to respond to things as much. I’ve only been doing Qigong for about a year, so I don’t have all that much depth in my understanding, but I see the shift in my brain.
JF I’m curious, what did you notice about meridians?
BB Well, I’m very aware of how everything’s interconnected. It makes art really weird and different. It’s like asking, What is my message? What am I trying to make as an artist? What is the point?
JF I never really understood “message,” but I understand asking what’s the point—meaning, Why am I doing it?
BB I got into art, or at least theater, because it was a more healthy way to communicate than being the rambunctious class clown. Through theater I figured out how to use the kind of intense energy and passion I had as a container.
JF I’m thinking of the difference between communicating and expressing. Communicating involves two or more. Right now I’m communicating, I’m trying to say something. But I don’t know if that’s a message. (laughter)
BB Yeah. If you’re performing in a theater and people come and pay money, is it a form of entertainment? Are you trying to express your particular voice in a message? Or are you just doing your job and saying your lines? There are many different ways you can come at it.
Because I don’t have the body of the average person, I can’t just be an actor as a job—there are no roles for me. I have to make roles for myself. So that’s the difference for me.
BB Everything I’m doing is somehow weirdly loaded because of my body.
JF What about your body?
BB I have a body that’s presented as masculine and most people read it as male but because of my name, Becca, or for people who know me, it’s like, that person was born female. There’s a review of Jess [Barbagallo] and I doing Seagull (Thinking of You). It said something like, Becca Blackwell’s so convincing as Trigorin and Peter that I had to keep checking the program to see if I could find an arguably male name on the cast list. I’m like, Why? ‘Cause it was blowing his mind that everyone on that stage had a vagina and that two of us were performing male roles?
Historically, men have played women. The average person goes, “How can women play men?” Even if it’s just me saying, “Hey, how you doing?” on stage, everyone’s like, “That’s some angry pussy!” (laughter)
JF What does it feel like to take testosterone?
BB It’s wild. I just took my shot today. So I might have to ass-rape you!
JF Oh really?
BB Yeah. I brought a flag, and I’m gonna occupy this land! I just walk around being like, This is all mine!
JF Well, that’s why I had the apron on while I was cooking.
BB (laughter) It’s surreal as a forty-two-year-old. I mean I started when I was thirty-eight taking a really low dose. I was having a hard time navigating the performance world with my body being presented as a female—it wasn’t like I was a petite lady. I had long thought about transitioning but I never had enough money for top surgery and I was also scared. I know three people in the queer community—one I know well, two others peripherally—who killed themselves on testosterone. I was like, Holy shit, what does this drug do to you?
I mean, testosterone is the hormone that is the basis of patriarchy. So if you wanna get really deep, it’s like, Do I want to participate in that? I am totally a feminist and, as much as men might not feel empowered, they are in a more powerful position than someone with a vagina, or someone who is feminine or a woman. So what does that mean for me?
But I realized that I was actually not strong enough to live in this world and in this age as a masculine woman. Masculine women are kind of the lowest—you’re not deemed sexy for men and you have no visibility as a performer. The only masculine female I can think of on TV is Lea DeLaria on Orange Is the New Black. She plays a butch dyke and she is one. Someone once said to me, “So you’re taking testosterone basically because of your job.” Around 2004, I auditioned for Tracy Letts’s Bug, in which the secondary character is a butch dyke from Oklahoma. Afterward, Tracy came up to me saying, “You were great.” And he said it to me as if my mom just died. Then I found out that the producers were uncomfortable with someone so masculine having to kiss the lead.
JF And the lead?
BB She was your average attractive white actor lady. And one character in the play is her butch friend. But the girl they cast didn’t look like a dyke at all. She looked like another average white female actress. There’s a romanticism in the way barren towns of the Midwest are portrayed. They’re not casting people who look like they’re from those towns because they’re not attractive enough.
JF Have you been to Oklahoma?
BB No, but I’m from Ohio.
JF I love Ohio. Where from?
BB Columbus. It’s a good town but it’s very God-driven. You want to get out if you’re queer or even remotely not conservative. But because of Ohio State University you have stuff like the Wexner Center and bands—
JF —and football. (laughter)
BB When I was in Columbus, I saw all kinds of stuff, like Holly Hughes, Diamanda Galás, Butthole Surfers, Dead Kennedys. I saw Public Image Ltd. with Johnny Rotten.
JF I love the Butthole Surfers.
BB I was coming up there in the mid-’80s and music was really fun then. Every band went through Columbus, and because it’s a college town, you could see them for cheap. I was in a band for eight or nine years.
JF In Columbus?
BB No, here in New York. We were called Inner Princess. It was punk. We were way ahead of our time, writing songs like, “I Wish They Made a Bathroom for People Like Me” and “Everyone’s Pink on the Inside.” We reunited for one night and played a couple of our songs at Under the Radar Festival two years ago, and all these young kids were like, “What is this?” And we said, “Yeah, we did this in 2004.” But back then people didn’t catch on.
JF I want to know what it’s like to take testosterone.
BB Okay. So I take a shot, which is always hard because I have to inject it myself. There’s this worry, “What kind of energy am I putting in my body?” When you’re first taking it, you get that sweaty, clammy feeling, similar to what you probably felt during puberty, when you looked down at your dick and you got hair all over your junk, and your mom’s like, “You stink. Can you wear deodorant?” And you are horny whether or not you want to be. I’m like, What is wrong with me? Coming at the world with my history, and then all of the sudden my junk is like, Yayyyyyy!
JF What sort of history? What do you mean?
BB Well, I have a feminist background, you know, and now I’m like (singing), “Double Penetration!” I wouldn’t say everyone feels that way, but this is what it’s doing for me. I get scared, too. There’s not a lot we know about taking testosterone. And I feel a kind of panic around that.
A friend today asked, “So are you gonna get …?” I’m glad he talked to me about it, because I could say, “Try not to ask other people who are trans that question.” It’s everyone’s worst nightmare being asked, “What’s going on down there?” Everyone associates your gender with your genitals, because that’s just how we were all raised. Even I get caught up sometimes. I have my own perceptions and boxes—that’s what we do as humans, we’re always cataloguing based on something like, “The saber-toothed tiger is coming after us. I have to fight. This is threatening my masculinity. This is me needing to dominate.” That’s just how we function—on a very primitive level. So what’s an enlightened way of interacting? I always say, “If I lived in a fucking utopia, I wouldn’t be taking testosterone, because however I’d want to present and be, everyone else would be participating instead of being threatened by it.”
JF Really? I’m wondering.
BB The worst thing a man can be in the world is a woman, whether or not you personally believe that. It really triggers men when they see one of their own trying to present or be seen as female. I think there’s a fear of like, You’re tricking me. You might make me gay if I find you attractive. Also, men are in a dominant position, so it’s like, Why would you go to a lower status? We assume these gender roles every day, the moment we walk out in the world.
JF We’re like zombies… on automatic.
BB Yeah, people carry on with sadness and pain without being aware of their ability to heal themselves. Western people are being ruled by stress—”Hurry up, get there”—all these perceptions of what success is. People believe they can’t afford health or knowledge. But everyone can take the initiative, it’s just awareness.
When I lived in Bed-Stuy—before aggressive gentrification—I had just started meditating. I read about meditating on one’s environment: What is it that you really feel in your neighborhood? And what I felt was the palpability of poverty. But I also felt a lot of community. I was immediately noticed in my neighborhood and I joined the block association, which enabled me to navigate more easily. The first thing I realized going to the grocery store was that the produce was of much lower caliber. If your environment isn’t invested in your health and in your growth, it plays into the way you see and value yourself. There aren’t any health food stores until a bunch of white gentrifiers come in.
JF There are actually a lot of Jamaican health food stores here, and have been for a long time.
BB Yes, maybe that’s specifically West Indian. People of black American descent carry a lot of pain. That is unacknowledged, I think. Most of my friends from first-generation West Indies families have a different response to their blackness in the world. Obviously, there is a lot of carnage in the history of slavery, but black America hasn’t had its therapy time—”I’m hurt, I’m scared, I don’t feel valued. I’m considered a threat because that’s what the media says.” If you’re a big white guy, you’re being responded to differently than if you’re a big black guy. It’s not an individual’s fault, it’s the system and that’s very real. We as white people experience it differently.
JF I think therapy would help that. It would probably feel bad to a lot of white people.
BB Of course. Did you ever see The Color of Rage? It was around ‘93, a group of multi-racial men got together and talked. There were two white guys and one of them said that he doesn’t see color. One of the African American guys replied very eloquently, saying how frustrated he gets when he hears this kind of stuff from white people. I started crying watching his explosion of rage, his pain since childhood, all the years of being marginalized in this way that he couldn’t understand as a kid. I think a lot of people need to get this rage out. Suppressing it is toxic.
JF I wonder if rage can be engaged without serious violence to the whole society.
BB I think the violence comes from not being heard. You have people protesting because they want to be heard. Violence happens when the cops go into those protests and beat the shit out of people.
JF That’s warfare.
BB Then you have to do some major system changes—like not honoring violence as a form of control. It’s my whole dilemma with taking testosterone. Part of my show, They, Themself and Schmerm, is, Do I want to be a man? What is being a man? What I see is being told not to feel and to perform masculinity. But we all have yin and yang, and male and female hormones. Yet as a society we say we can’t be fluid within both.
Men honor violence and therefore can’t be feminine. That applies across the board racially. And that’s what I get scared of as a man. But I also don’t know how to navigate the world as a woman. I never navigated the world as a hetero person.
JF You didn’t. What was it like in your high school?
BB I had boyfriends and it felt gay when I would have sex with guys. Or it felt awkward, me being like, Man I wish I had that. (laughter) My attraction was more to women, but being a kid from Ohio I didn’t even consider that I was gay. During my first week of college this dyke came up to me, “You gay?” I was like, “No!” And she said, “You sure? You’re wearing an Indigo Girls T-shirt, you know.”
JF But do you think you were gay? Or do you think you are? Or what?
BB Well, I didn’t know! I thought you could only be gay with the people who were gay. The girls I liked weren’t lesbian. I think I just wished I was a guy. I’m attracted to girls who are hetero or bi.
JF Earlier, you talked about communicating in performance. I have to say, I find that impossible—communicating.
BB While you’re on stage?
JF Let’s say I have lines that are written by somebody else. That’s actually one obstacle taken away—choosing what to say. But I still find that speaking onstage never does what you typically want to do when you communicate. I’m not withholding. I’m not trying to hide. But I feel strongly that I don’t have anything to communicate. In the sense of message. That’s not what I’m doing.
BB That’s very true when it comes to speaking other people’s words. But for me, when I’m making my own art, where I am both the author and the vehicle for that language, it is about communication. And it feels exciting, titillating, and terrifying to actually be seen—because I’m not used to seeing someone like me in the world. If I’m being hired by someone else, usually it’s because they know I’ll bring an element of Becca. In that way, I am still communicating because I’m a charged body in theatrical space.
JF Right. But what’s mine then?
BB I don’t know. I’m wondering.
JF That’s the thing. For me to perform my body, in a way it’s like the opposite of being charged. I have life energy and stuff, and we share that. But there’s no glory for me in being more me. If someone tells me to be myself, I draw a blank. And I get nauseous. (laughter)
BB But you’re one of the few male actors I know who doesn’t perform masculinity. For me, as someone who would prefer to be at least thought of as a man and play men’s roles, that’s really hard. Because people are like, Wait, you can’t play a man because you aren’t one. Watching male actors I often think, Good god! It’s terrifying how many men perform masculinity. They aren’t grounded in it. But you’re one of the few who doesn’t; it might have something to do with you not feeling this need to perform more of you. You’re not like, “I’m man, and I’m mad!” Or, “This is me charged up!”
JF I think you, Becca, are in a better position to have virility on stage.
BB I guess so. I’m also bringing thirty-some years of participating in the world as a female.
JF I love that.
BB I know you do.
JF Do you think virility for you is an act of will?
BB I definitely feel more confident, and I don’t know if that’s the testosterone or if that’s my own internal permission for my body to be valid in space.
JF You were virile before you took testosterone.
BB (laughter) I think it’s a myriad of things. I was in the circus for ten years, so part of me is clown.
JF You were in the circus?
BB Yeah, Jennifer Miller’s Circus Amok. She was my first real mentor. She nurtured me. The circus saved my life—artistically and emotionally. It’s a queer weirdo circus that goes around the five boroughs doing free programs that deal with issues like police brutality, affordable housing, health care, and whatever is happening. Jennifer started it at PS122 around ‘89 and soon got permits and moved it to the parks. We had a five-piece band and a big ring. It was an all-day affair.
JF And you played a clown?
BB I had to. We didn’t have a trapeze, and there were no animals. So everyone was a fucking clown. I learned some skills, stilt-walking and stuff like that. It was great. I’d say the Circus Amok and The Theatre of a Two-Headed Calf are the two catalysts for me as a performer. Just being exposed made me grow as an artist.
Also, even as a man, if you have red hair or orange hair like I do, you’re not seen as totally masculine, but as a kind of Dennis the Menace. So I think I’ve always charmed people with comedy or with being weird and humorous. I think there’s something really interesting and free about people in different pockets of marginalization, though, of course, many awful things come out of these pockets, too.
JF Give me an example.
BB Hip-hop. White people don’t live the life that activated this artistic response. Voguing came out of gay black American culture having to hide in basements to dance. It’s the same with queer culture; it found its own expression as a reaction to marginalization. Now we joke, Oh, art was so much better when we were all in the closet. It’s so complicated to understand and unpack racism and gender inequality, transphobia, homophobia, and so on. We need a complete system overhaul.
JF I’ve never seen so much exposure in my life.
BB Now, if something happens, like if a bomb explodes somewhere, we’ll know within ten minutes. Historians say people have always been violent and done horrible things. But now we are hearing about it every second and the common person can say, “Wait, we’re doing it again? Another brown person got beat up by a cop? Why?”
Again, this is patriarchy. I think the reason that we don’t know much about matriarchy is because under matriarchy there would be no need for writing history.
JF Do you think authorship is patriarchal?
BB The authorship of historical texts definitely is because they are written from a particular person’s point of view. But the question is, Whose history is it? The person who got all the land and the power?
What about truly going into the yin and yang? What about a queertopia? Masculinity is just as valuable as femininity—each person should be able to be whichever they’re more closely connected to. Binaries are a form of control. The natural spirit of humans doesn’t want to be controlled. But I guess if we lived in a racial and gender utopia, we would come up against other oppositions.
JF When I see you or Jess Barbagallo perform, it is so valuable, so precious to me. It’s not something I had imagined before. Now yes, these other things are happening—like an activist, social justice, coming-to-birth kind of message. But there’s also a more direct experience of manhood in a way. Plain as that. These are great performances.
BB Well, we’re coming into being men if you will. I can’t speak for Jess obviously, but I use the term schmerm because it’s the sound people make when they’re trying to figure out what gender I am. They’re always like, “Schmermmm, Becca.”
Jess and I use the word man from a very different vantage point and a different history. We were allowed to cry because we grew up as girls; we didn’t get emotionally shut down as most men do growing up. They’re told, “Man up! Don’t be a pussy!”
JF I do find that you make things happen in terms of activism in theater.
BB Well, any trans person on stage is a form of activism because it’s just not something that most audiences are exposed to. And it doesn’t have to be advertised as being about a trans person. We’re all wanting just to speak and be humans having relationships and experiencing the world. James Allister Sprang, a really interesting and exciting performance artist, asked me recently, “When did you move here?” I said, “Early ’90s.” And he was like, “Oh, man!” And I said, “Honey, every generation tells you that you just missed it. That’s New York. It is always changing.” The careers of most of my black friends who came to the city to be actors kind of fizzled out in the mid ’90s. Back then having a black body on stage in a predominately white space was a form of activism. So to have a trans body in a predominately heteronormative, or even just binary normative, space is radical or activist. But exposure and visibility are only the starting points. People come to this city at exactly the time their spirit needs to be here. Now we have this whole “trans thing” going on—trans, trans, trans, trans, trans everywhere… I get scared about it going too fast.
JF Are you worried about it becoming mainstream?
BB Mainstreaming without an understanding of what trans is, without ever talking about what it means to be either gender. Caitlyn Jenner said that the hardest thing a woman has to do is pick out her outfit. But the hardest thing a woman has to do might be trying to go to Planned Parenthood while people are spitting at her and threatening to blow her up because she’s making choices for her own body. It gets complicated, you know. I don’t walk into a male environment and push all the men aside saying, “I know what it’s like to be a man now.” There’s just much more dialogue that needs to happen. Many cis women feel really uncomfortable with trans women coming into female-only spaces. Why is that? Because in a lot of those places trans women are seen as men and are, sadly, associated with the reprehensible behaviors of cis men. How do you unpack that? None of the trans women I personally know want to be oppressors to women or take away the rights women have. In fact, if anything, they want to feel like they belong.
Without dialogue, it’s like, Here’s the new way. But we need to process. You and I don’t get a script and immediately say, after one reading, “Got it!” No, we have to sit with the script and get frustrated. Maybe we nailed the line on the first day we read the script, but then we lose it, and we have to come back to it and try again and again. That’s the process. You can’t just all of a sudden dump something on people.
My Qigong practice is based on Taoism. I don’t need to be taking on every person’s agenda. Each person has their own journey to get to whatever enlightenment their spirit is desperately seeking. It’s not about me nurturing or saving the world but more about being as authentic as I can to myself as an artist.
JF Isn’t that a privileged position?
BB You’re right, it is privileged. But I’m not gonna sit here and hate my privilege because someone else doesn’t have it. If that person ever got privilege, must he or she be shamed? That doesn’t even help us. There will always be someone who has more than I do and someone who has less. I can’t worry about every single human being. But I can be aware, and I can have compassion, and I can show love. That’s what I can do.
Jim Fletcher is a founding member of the New York City Players with Richard Maxwell, with whom, this past year, he has appeared in Isolde, and The Evening. Also in 2016 he appeared in the films Two A.M. by Loretta Fahrenholz, and in Pinochet Porn by Ellen Cantor. Fletcher works with the art collective Bernadette Corporation.
My impulse was to write the last black play ever for myself. I really believed if I put it all into one play, people would leave me alone.