James and the Giant Peach
An Earthworm’s Resistance to Normalize Difference
We are in trouble. As artists under this new administration, we will be facing drastic financial cuts to our livelihoods. With many theatres already doing co-productions to save money, it is devastating to look at the financial disinvestment in culture and arts that is headed our way. The new budget under the current administration plans to cut 973 million dollars from arts discretionary spending. The proposed Presidential budget, slashing arts funding in such a drastic fashion, sends a definite message that art and culture are not worthy of support. With the travel bans on Muslims, and LGBTQ protections for workers being revoked via executive order, and the attorney general looking to dismantle the consent decrees on correcting racism in policing practices—what this amounts to is an attack on difference. A concerted effort to push those of us who are "other" (black, brown, red, yellow, female, LGBTQ+, gender non-conforming, seemingly anything other than white male heterosexual Christians) to the outside, and make us feel less than, excluded, and simply not wanted. The message is clear from the rallies where Trump encouraged his followers to attack a black woman. If you are other, you are not a part of "Making America Great Again.” What do we do as artists?
What signs of normative sexuality and gender norms can be interrupted and questioned by my body presentation?
As an artist of color facing an America led by someone opposed to my being, I am led to use my art to resist white supremacist, heteronormative, exclusionary thinking. This technique of resistance though my acting came upon me slowly while I was prepping for my latest Equity contract. In what may sound like a rather innocuous role, I have embraced inclusion of race, body positivity, and non-binary presentation of gender to resist efforts to exclude and shun difference. I recently played the Earthworm in a musical adaptation of James and The Giant Peach. Earthworms are hermaphrodites and (bear with me and suspend your disbelief) if turned into humans (as I am in the play), they would be gender fluid/non-binary. During rehearsals, I started to play with semiotics in a performance studies way. What is the "doing" of gender via gesture, body positions, vocal inflection, etc.? What signs of normative sexuality and gender norms can be interrupted and questioned by my body presentation? My task became figuring out what vocal and physical mannerisms "read" as masculine and feminine, and what read as both or neither? I began to use them interchangeably, thereby presenting and inhabiting. In other words, I performed the gender binary and in-between.
In this culture of fear, where anyone who is other is excluded, it is more important than ever to resist as artists and present what is good about being different, and in turn, normalize difference.
The costuming and text of the song I performed solo in the show also helped my performance of resistance. Being clothed entirely in variations of pink, from my head down to pink Chuck Taylor shoes, was a gift. Since the color pink is often visually read as feminine, I used the costume and assumptions of a what a "male" figure wearing pink means to work against those assumptions. For example, I strategically switched between the masculine and feminine qualities of my physicality and voice. As Judith Butler has been telling us for years, we perform gender. So, I took the task seriously, attempting to perform the diversity of the gender spectrum in this role.
Contextually in the piece, the text of the song I sing "Plump and Juicy," written by Pasek and Paul in the libretto, is designed to catch the attention of birds so they will fly down so James can harness them so the peach may fly. The song consists of the Earthworm celebrating their body, even going as far to call their body "bootylicious." It is fun and the young audiences love the prancing and dancing around the stage; however, it is my effort as a black character actor of larger size, who is indeed "plump and juicy," to promote body positivity. A large black person dancing around the stage, expressing loudly in high A's that they are desirable is a direct act of resistance in the face of a culture where unarmed black bodies are routinely shown murdered by police daily. To center blackness onstage in a positive way, affirming itself and reveling in the beauty and power of the black body in a culture where Pepsi centers Kendall Jenner, a white woman, to answer police brutality with sugar water is a direct act of resistance.
If my performance can convince one white child in the audience that a brown child is not only OK, but also could be welcomed into their family, then I have succeeded. If one black child in the audience can see blackness onstage and know they have a place on stage too, then I have succeeded. If one audience member can be convinced that someone who looks "male" can wear pink and be fabulous, I have succeeded in normalizing difference. If a young audience member can recognize something different in my gender presentation that opens up their receptive perception, then I have succeeded. In this culture of fear, where anyone who is other is excluded, it is more important than ever to resist as artists and present what is good about being different, and in turn, normalize difference. Performing a character who is proud of what sets them apart, and is not only accepted for that difference, but also celebrated for it, can mean the world to young audiences who are now beginning to form their own opinions on gender, race, and belonging.