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.
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Thank you for recognizing the opportunity and responsibility of representing not just the diversity you already know but taking on the notion of heteronormity in this role. 99% of your audience won't be aware of what you're doing, but you're helping change the world for them as much as for the 1 kid who does see themselves (or a friend, or a parent...) in your portrayal. Have a blast while changing the world!
I thought this was going to be about "James Comey and the Giant Peach."
I very much appreciated reading how you've been engaging with identity on stage and responding to the current sociopolitical climate. This is one of the articles I'll likely assign in my Intro to Theatre class in the fall.
This is a teeny, tiny note that wouldn't have even jumped into my head were it not for reading the recently released spring issue of "TYA Today". One article discussed the benefits and challenges of co-productions (co-commissions, more specifically). From reading that article, I was reminded that co-productions can certainly be a concern if only used to save money, but do have benefits beyond that which are important to remember such as expanding one's audience and increasing the reach of the TYA field.
Thank you! I am honored you are led to share this article with your students. I am also an educator so I value what that means. There are pros and cons of course to co productions however the benefits of co productions mostly lay at the feet of the producers in financial savings. It usually ends up meaning fewer actors employed on the artist end.
For the love of God, please stop saying white heterosexual people are immune to this administration's threat. I'm currently trying to figure out if my health insurance will disappear and every day I read how white straight people are NOT being threatened (see Debra Messing's GLAAD speech). The left are daring white people to leave. Why? We have to come together or we will never win another election. It is completely possible to discuss your concerns over arts funding without pounding on the white straight man. My life is on the line, but I'm not under attack? We have these struggles in common and could find common ground instead of driving a large part of the population away in droves. The left has learned nothing from our mistakes.
I am curious as to what article you read. Please quote me where I said white people were immune to this administration's threat? I will wait... I was shocked as everyone else on the left that white people voted to take their own medicaid away. I was perplexed that white people voted to end the protection of coverage with preexisting medical conditions by electing the man who campaigned on doing just that (by repealing AHA) I was shocked that white people would in fact cut off their noses to spite their own faces all because of #whitelash and the policies of President black.
I am speaking to my identity that is directly under attack by the policies of this administration, of which there are many, and increasingly more every day. You may write an article that speaks to yours. I find it tiring to keep having to say this, but honey pro black, is not anti white. Me loving my body and my race and my gender and sexuality is not a commentary on yours. The need for me to say this comes from a society that is white supremacist. I don't need to say white lives matter because the mantra ONLY WHITE LIVES MATTER has been the status quo from jumpstreet in every strata of society. This is my resistance to fat shaming, gender policing, heterosexism and racism. The fact you find celebrating blackness is "pounding on the white man" is very telling and speaks to something within you...
I have no problem with you defending your identity. You said people are under attack, "seemingly anything other than white male heterosexual Christians." I'm not inferring anything, this is a direct quote. And now you've doubled down. Do you not see where we've gone wrong?
Friend, we do not live in a white supremacist society. Since the immigration act of 1965, we peacefully and quickly transitioned from a 90% white country to a 65% white country. We are a deeply liberal society. We are also a deeply racist society, but the left won the culture war. We're now under attack because we've become intolerant, illiberal and obsessed with race, gender and sexuality. Not as much as the right, but we cannot sacrifice the princples that led to our multicultural society because of what they've done.
I'm not offended as a straight white man. I'm offended as a liberal. If we continue to attack white male heterosexuals as if they are a monolithic oppressor class than we will continue to lose. It's unnecessary. It's a losing strategy. It's illiberal. It's wrong.
If I lose my coverage, I will die. And the left doesn't care. You don't care. Because of my identity. Please just reconsider this tactic.
If I may make an observation as a third party reading your conversation here, it sounds like you're both right.
And you're both wrong.
But that's if I want to take a binary look at your conversation. This conversation of yours started because you took one line from the article and then got angry/frustrated/sad/weary/etc. about that. Was it an exclusionary statement that oversimplified a complex reading of our current socio-political situation in the US. Yep, absolutely. Was your reaction an oversimplified generalization of the larger message of the article because of that statement? Yep.
What if you had instead said something like, "I appreciate how you are engaging with this conversation of identity in our current tumultuous social/political environment. I appreciated hearing your opinion and how you are working to address the concerns you've identified. It inspires me to think about how I am engaging as a heterosexual white Christian male (a population you have, inadvertently I hope, oversimplified as being the only ones coming out unscathed in this situation; I can assure you, as someone about to lose my desperately needed health care, that is not always the case, although I can appreciate that the oppressive/prejudiced world, while more liberal now than in the past, still has a ways to go before we are all truly equal)." How might that have changed the tenor of the conversation? How might that have opened up a dialogue instead of creating a binary of "us vs. them" in a match of wits and who has it worse?
Sometimes we are our own worst enemy.
I was harsh, you're correct. I fully support his concerns. I suppose I was soured when he mentioned white heterosexuals as not in danger in his opening paragraph. It's simply not true and needlessly divisive. It makes no sense from both an ethical and political standpoint.
I quoted you. Are you even going to admit any culpability?
Of course he won't. Which proves how right you are about everything you said. (And I commend you for having the insight, and courage, to say it.)
I appreciate all that you've taken on here with regards to gender, race, and body image. In today's world, even tackling one head-on, would be a worthy undertaking, but you appear to have done real work toward addressing all three in your role as the Earthworm. As an actor, I am particularly excited at your experimentation with how you present genders, and gender fluidity. So interesting.