Meet a few of our ‘transcestors’ on stage now in L.A.
B Alexander (they/them) stars as Pauli Murray. | Photo by Tyler Vess

LOS ANGELES—In many cultures, maybe most, a certain space exists for people to live out their lives inhabiting the social expectations of another gender than that into which they were born. If it weren’t for severe, often violent suppression of a person’s natural inclinations, there’d likely be more. If people lived “trans” lives in the past, and continue to do so, medical advances in the 20th and 21st centuries have made possible the physical transformation of a female body into a male body, and a male body into a female body. Some people, of course, may prefer to remain in some transitional state, sharing characteristics of both genders. (And, though not the subject under discussion here, there are others born with intersex features.)

Upsetting gender norms has been tacitly or even warmly accepted in some times and places, and vehemently opposed in others. In the United States now, trans lives are under sharp attack. If they get their way, right-wing governors and legislatures in various states can now intervene in an individual’s ongoing medical treatment that should be no one else’s affair, and certainly not the state’s. The mask has been ripped off the conservative mantra of “keeping the government off my back,” as we see that ultimately the goal is to regulate and control other people’s lives according to a strictly white male-dominated Christian nationalist formula. More and more, Americans are seeing the tactics of fascism in such attempts to crush any protest or opposition movement under the reactionary iron heel.

Such is the context in which Celebration Theater and Greenway Arts Alliance present Tales of the Transcestors, a revelatory, eye-opening survey of six historical individuals and how they chose to live out their lives. The earliest story goes back to the first half of the 19th century, and the latest one brings us all the way up to the year 2000.

If amidst all the depressing news accounts of rage and terror against the trans community, you are yearning for a jolt of inspiration and empowerment, then hurry over to the Greenway Court Theatre for the last performance of this wonderful show on Mon., June 26.

Based on true accounts, Tales of the Transcestors is an interpretive live telling of six transgender stories across history, in five short but unforgettable scenes (the last one features two characters) without intermission. In a multi-genre experience inclusive of music and poetry, six theater artists of intersectional transgender experience bring their understanding of these stories to the stage.

Alexia Jasmene (she/her) stars as Dawn Langley Simmons. | Photo by Tyler Vess

The printed program lists no playwright credited with scripting these characters’ stories. According to a short video greeting by director Shaan Dasani (he/they) that kicked off the opening night performance on June 16, the casting process entailed selecting the right actors to portray the selected historical figures. Once chosen, they were then provided information, some of it voluminous and in other cases rather sketchy, about the individuals, and the actors themselves wrote their own scenes based on their subject’s biography. This in itself struck me as a unique approach to theatre-making that I hadn’t encountered before.

The entire event was produced by Alex Hogy (he/him), with support by arts grants from the California Arts Council and City of West Hollywood.

What I found, generally speaking, is that the more public, well-known and documented lives came across somewhat didactically, their scenes studded with information, dates, quotes. The lesser-known characters, where the actors had to create more of their context and elaborate the details, came across more lyrically. But the scenes are short, none overstayed their welcome, and it all grabbed the viewer’s interest. The actors figuratively stripped themselves bare to let us see what made their characters tick.

So who are these “transcestors”?

B Alexander (they/them) stars as Pauli Murray (1910-1985), an African-American civil rights activist and advocate, a legal scholar and theorist, author and, later in life, an Episcopal priest. Murray’s early work predated Rosa Parks and Thurgood Marshall, influencing the course of the civil rights movement. Born with the name Pauline, they chose to be known as the more ambiguous Pauli. Murray was a close friend with Eleanor Roosevelt, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg made no secret of her reliance on Murray’s legal formulations as she began applying established civil rights law in addressing gender discrimination.

Murray personally experienced many instances of gender inequality, being refused admission to schools, or promotions, or tenure, on account of gender. The scene depicts Pauli’s attempt to undergo clinical gender reassignment, but it was denied. They were offended when they received letters addressed them as “Dear Miss”: “Miss is not my name.” At one time Murray, pointedly wearing “men’s” pants, had a woman partner who died young—a loss Pauli felt, it is implied, for years. In Alexander’s script, the actor/playwright gives Murray passages of musicated speech that turn into a song on the theme, “They don’t know what it’s like to be uncomfortable in their skin,” performed in a distinctly low contralto range.

Recognition of Murray’s life and accomplishments is growing: For example, one of the new undergraduate residences at Yale has been named Pauli Murray College (in 1965, Pauli became the first African American to receive a JSD degree from Yale Law School).

Mallery Jenna Robinson (she/her) stars as Mary Jones. | Photo by Tyler Vess

Alexia Jasmene (she/her) plays Dawn Langley Simmons (1922-2000), a prolific English author and biographer, who settled in the U.S. under her original name of Gordon Langley Hall. In 1968 Johns Hopkins accepted her as a trans patient and she adopted her new name. As a youth she had met Virginia Woolf, whose novel Orlando about a gender-shifting character continued to fascinate her all her life. In 1969, she married a Black man she met in Charleston, S.C., the first reported legal mixed-race union in the state (after Loving v. Virginia), publicly challenging racial norms. Their home was attacked and she suffered personal violence. Although he later developed schizophrenia and turned abusive, they did have a daughter together, who “made me the best mother and grandmother I could never hope to be.” Among her subjects as a biographer were the actress Margaret Rutherford, Princess Margaret, Jacqueline Kennedy, Lady Bird Johnson and her daughters, Mary Todd Lincoln, Rosalynn Carter, Pearl Buck, and others. She also wrote the 1971 memoir Man Into Woman: A Transsexual Autobiography.

Mallery Jenna Robinson (she/her) portrays Mary Jones (1803-1853), born as a boy in New Orleans into an enslaved family who later gained their freedom. Mary’s family were always affirming of her gender expression from a young age. She found her way to New York City, and we meet her in 1832 as a receptionist at the Happy Place, a brothel in Hell’s Kitchen, where she befriends both the women sex workers and their clients. Attracted to some of the kindlier men, she desires them and wants to become a “working girl.” She undergoes a primitive operation that provides her with “lady parts” and, though she admits to her first client that “I’s a lady and a gentleman,” he violates her roughly. Discouraged from continuing in her adopted profession, she spots a newspaper ad for acreage in the country and eventually, after a few setbacks, settles into a home and domesticity, where she finds her happiness. Mary Jones is known for being one of the first recorded transgender people in American history. I found the acting, and the telling of this tale, especially moving.

Amir Levi (he/she/they) and Nicole Delsack (she/they) star as lovers Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore. | Photo by Tyler Vess

Our play now moves abroad, where Felix Garcia (they/she) inhabits the role of one José Manuel Pachini (1890s-?), who lived during the height of the Venezuelan oil boom, working a variety of jobs including electrician, barber, nurse, and bricklayer. José lived and presented as a man since the age of 15. At a certain point he became enamored of Bárbara, a young woman he started courting and then married. We meet him in a judge’s courtroom (the actor who played Dawn Langley Simmons interrogates him), where his wife accuses him of fraud after she undresses him and discovers why he has demanded modesty and chastity in their marriage. It was the stuff of tabloid coverage for a while, but disappeared from the news as public attention turned toward the coming World War II.

“I’m not disguising myself. I am a man,” he tells the judge. “I’m not a monster. I’m a human being, with feelings and fears.” In an echo of the Pauli Murray story, the judge insists on addressing him as “Miss Pachini.” And in a prefiguring of the next story, José hears of persecution by the Nazis and the extermination of “the other,” and can’t help thinking of his own hopeless predicament. The rest of his story peters out inconclusively.

Finally, we are in Paris during the German occupation, with Amir Levi (he/she/they) as Claude Cahun (1894-1954), a French surrealist photographer, sculptor, and writer who, with her romantic and creative partner, fought back against Hitlerian ideology in their own subversive ways. Nicole Delsack (she/they) plays her mate Marcel Moore (1892-1972), a French illustrator, designer, and photographer. Together they used art to push back against the Nazi occupiers by leaving messages in public places signed “A Nameless Soldier,” implying that certain German soldiers were themselves expressing disillusionment with Hitler.

While both came from upper-class French families and could well have chosen the easy life of accommodationist to the Nazi-imposed régime, they were also veterans of the Surrealist movement. “The purpose of art is to prepare for revolution,” she declaims. “There will be no freedom until everyone is free,” and he concurs completely. In that, they recognize their strategic alignment with the “extreme left” who might be against their own class interests but do militate for the “rights of the people.”

One of their most effective acts of subterfuge—in this Catholic country—was posting flyers saying, “Jesus is great, but Hitler is greater, because Jesus died for the people, and the people die for Hitler.” When they are finally arrested, the Germans had trouble believing that people like that could possibly have had any involvement with such crimes. Both survived the war having witnessed “the fragility of liberty” and affirming that “the right to resist is a primal human right.”

The Greenway Court Theatre is located at 544 N. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles 90036. Just to its north is a big free parking lot. The only remaining performance, at press time, is Mon., June 26 at 7 p.m. For further information and tickets, click here.

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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.