I’m siting in Charlotte airport heading home after the TransFaith in Color Conference. 200 folks gathered. Many have had “transgender experiences” (language used at conference) and most were people of color. I was honored with an invitation to present Transfigurations–Transgressing Gender in the Bible, performance scholarship about gender non-conforming characters in the Bible. I also co-facilitated a workshop with David Weekley.
Doing a solo show, one learns to sense the audience, their level of engagement, their concentration and interest. Often there is a negotiation stage for the first 5 to 20 minutes of the performance where folks settle in and enter into a contract of sorts with me about the performance. The audience comes to a consensus of sorts choose to forget the world outside the theater and instead give me their time, minds, and hearts. I sense when this critical moment occurs and know that I can then relax into my performance–no more convincing needed. Then I crack open heart, and with my characters, along with the audience, we create a bubble in time and space. We may experience the same show at the same time, but often it hits us each differently.
Transfigurations has some tender moments during the last quarter including a section I recently re-worked about “the Ethiopian eunuch,” who I name Desta, a gender neutral Ethiopian name meaning destiny and happiness. My reading of Desta is that this is a person who experienced castration, likely against their will at a young age. When Desta reads Isaiah 53 about a suffering servant and grows curious about the identity of the sufferer, I believe it is a personal interest in a familiar narrative. Desta reads about someone who like a sheep was silent before shearers, humiliated and denied justice with the potential for descendants cut off. For Desta the text is not about the sufferings of Christ, rather the sufferings of an unwilling eunuch.
As an official from Ethiopia, this dark skinned, male-bodied person without a beard, with a high voice, with a body not affected by testosterone or a male puberty enters the temple grounds in Jerusalem. This would have been a highly gendered heteronormative space jammed with families where one must decide if they belong to the spaces specifically for the men and young men or the side with the women and children. Without family, being so distinctly different, it must have been a complicated and potentially painful experience for the Desta. In my performance I seek to tap in to this pain, longing, and deep sadness as well as the joy that comes when Desta hears new words of affirmation.
Last night as I performed this section, I heard weeping in the audience coming from at least four different parts of the room. The weeping grew larger in both volume and the number of people throughout the rest of the play. As I ended and exited, the audience then erupted in applause and a standing ovation which felt to me like a giant hug. Then during the Q&A people spoke. They had few questions. At least three individuals spoke about how they saw themselves represented on stage and in the text and how much this meant to them.
One man stood up choking back tears warning that he may not get out what he wants to say. He caused me to tear up when he spoke. (I paraphrase. If someone present remembers his words differently, please share them in the comments.) He said, “Thank you. I do not feel alone anymore because you have revealed to me my ancestors, and I will never be alone again.”
We have many types of theater and performance shared for many different reasons. The reasons may change with the audience. Last night I felt honored to enter into the suffering, the joy, and the wonder of gender non-conforming people in the Bible. And in doing so, I became one with my audience. For me we became more than kin. For a moment we became “one flesh,” a communal being.
So I head home full of joy, exhausted from sharing, buoyed up with so many kind words and hugs and smiles from new friends and old.
If you have a chance, tune into National Public Radio’s Morning Edition tomorrow (Monday) morning to hear a segment on the Ex-Gay Movement and Michelle and Marcus Bachmann. I was interviewed for the piece and hope the producer did an expert job of editing down a 80 minute interview into less than three. Now that is miraculous!