“A Singular They”: Intersex drama explores teenage angst

LOS ANGELES – Most coming of age stories don’t also involve deciding what gender you want to be. That’s the dilemma facing lead character Burbank in A Singular They, a new one-act play by Aliza Goldstein – making her professional debut as a playwright – that is currently receiving its world premiere production by The Blank Theatre.

Overt political references are absent in the play, but we cannot be unaware of the polarized times we live in. The science is here now for people of one gender to transition to another gender with relative ease – well, relative to the vast uncertainties, unknowns and risks that we saw in the recent film, The Danish Girl, which told the story of an early surgical transition in the 1920s. Nowadays, with a combination of counseling, hormones, and operations, a male can become female, and vice versa, and to the larger world it’s hardly news any more.

Goldstein’s concept suggests to me that besides the fact that the transition is possible, people are choosing to inhabit an entire range of sexuality and gender all the way from cisgender comfort in straight to gay to bi roles, to partial to complete transgender transition, and asking friends, family, and society to accept and legally recognize these choices. It almost seems like a protest against boxing all the limitless potential of humanity into two boring options, F or M. Exquisitely tuned nuance, complexity, individuality, uniqueness – these all make life so much more interesting. The new trans culture forces us to question how important is it really whether you enter the restroom that’s labeled Gents or Ladies, and why or whether we even need such labels.

Burbank, née Christine (Lily Nicksay), has chosen a gender-indeterminate name (and how widespread is that phenomenon now!) because she is one of those rare, but not unknown individuals born “off the binary” – an estimated 1 in 3000 – with biological features of both the male and female sex. Appropriately, Burbank has come to the point of asking to be referred to as “they,” since neither “he” nor “she” adequately serves to describe who Burbank is. So they becomes, as the title says, a singular they.

“I want to be one of those people with words for the way I feel,” says the intersex character.

Burbank has to decide whether or not to continue taking the estrogen the doctors keep prescribing, leading up to an appointment with the knife that will make her indubitably female and thus sexually desirable to others (though still not capable of conception and giving birth). Maybe, they thinks, they is fine just the way they is and doesn’t need to be cut open by anyone. “If I have to change my body to be loved, that doesn’t sound like love,” they says.

But of course they is still a teenager, fretting about haircuts, exams, virginity, friendships, trust, and finding appropriate mentors in a world that hasn’t caught up to their issues.

Speaking of birth, Burbank’s BFF is her high school classmate Dierdre (Hannah Prichard), who is in fact pregnant, by someone she cares nothing for, and preparing to give her baby up for adoption and get on with her life. Is this the model of femininity to which Burbank is being pushed to aspire? They won’t adopt that message wholesale, but nevertheless there is surely some profound wonderment at the miracle of life that the two friends share before moving on. They also agree that once you’re born, the first thing you learn is that “the world is bright and loud and it hurts.”

The third character is Mr. Mazer, Burbank’s biology teacher (Nick Ballard), who is everything a confused high school kid could want in a sympathetic ear and shoulder. Just to make things interesting, the playwright has given him his own baggage that gets bundled with Burbank’s in some unexpected ways.

Directed fluently by Christopher J. Raymond, A Singular They moves along with quick changes of scene and acting that captures the essence of awkward teenagerdom. The play takes place in late 2011-early 2012 in Allentown, Penn., but neither time nor place contributes any particular significance. 

The Blank always does a bang-up job converting its matchbox stage into the fantasy environment we will enter. For this production, the stage is divided by set designer Aaron Lyons into three discrete playing areas – a high school biology classroom, Burbank’s funky bedroom, and a mall eatery.

This is Goldstein’s first produced play, an auspicious beginning, and she will grow and learn from it. And if it gets produced elsewhere it is not too late to consider some revisions. Burbank insists on being called “they,” and the playwright has gone so far as to elevate this pronoun to the title status of her work. So I needed to hear more about that. It’s tossed out once and barely heard from again. No one onstage fumbles over what to say, nor does Burbank recount uncomfortable conversations with offstage characters (who are her parents, by the way?). This missing piece actually reflects the unfamiliarity and often discomfort we in the general public experience when confronted face to face with these issues. It’s Burbank’s play, but it’s the audience that needs as much help as they does.

“It gets better.” We have all seen those YouTube videos from celebrities as well as from ordinary people, addressed to LGBTQ teens to let them know that tough as the current bullying and name-calling may be, once they’re past high school and either in college or the larger world, or maybe once they’ve had some mature romantic relationships, life will assuredly turn out fine. So please don’t commit any irreversible acts.

The play similarly ends with that kind of upbeat note. It’s left unresolved whether they undergoes the operation or not, but either way, Burbank’s a singular character and they is gonna be OK.

A Singular They plays through May 1, Fri. and Sat. at 8 pm, and Sun. at 2 pm, at the 2nd Stage Theatre, 6500 Santa Monica Blvd. in Hollywood. For tickets: www.theblank.com or 323.661.9827.

Photo: Lily Nicksay (L) and Hannah Prichard. Photo Credit: Anne E. McGrath


Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon, People’s World Cultural Editor, wrote a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein and co-authored composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. He has translated all nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, available from International Publishers NY.