Last week I saw Boston University Athena’s Players annual production of The Vagina Monologues. It was clearly a meaningful experience for the cast and crew. All of my friends who were involved said they had a great time. I loved going and supporting them. But I had a little bit of a problem. I’ve actually been trying to find the right words to express this problem for quite sometime now. It still might be a little rough. I apologize. Please know that this comes from a place of love and an attempt to think bigger about the way we do theater.
This year Athena’s Players decided to do a monologue called “They Beat the Girl Out of My Boy… Or So They Tried,” an ensemble piece from the perspective of a number of transgender women. Ensler added the piece in 2005 specifically for the purpose of including the trans community. Yet, every one of the women performing the piece was a cisgender woman.
It’s not that the women on the stage didn’t do a good job. They are all perfectly capable actresses. It’s not that Athena’s Players chose to do a newer monologue. It is great that they can switch pieces in and out. But why not cast transgender women in the ensemble of this piece? That’s what it is there for. This monologue exists to give voice to a group that is marginalized in the theater and in discussions of gender. By casting cis women, Athena’s Players undermined the power of the piece. Not only a could trans woman add lived experience to the piece, but she is also an important face for the audience to see. Trans women are highly underrepresented in our theaters. According to 20% Theater Company Twin Cities, a company dedicated to giving work to transgender and female theater artists, less than 5% of transgender theater artists are welcome on stage or backstage in this country. Less than 5%. Trans women are not on our stages, and it is not because they all have stage fright. A transgender woman should have performed “They Beat the Girl Out of My Boy… Or So They Tried.” To truly understand the point of the piece, the audience needed to see a transgender woman in that part.
When we cast cisgender people in the few parts written for transgender people, it erases the trans experience. It is similar to casting a white actor as a black person or an able bodied person as someone with a disability. When we cast more mainstream actors in roles written for actors of minorities, we let audiences off the hook. They didn’t really get to understand a story about a trans woman. They can feel comfortable and at the same time pat themselves on the back for listening to a “different” kind of story.
I talked to a couple of my friends about this, and I got a range of responses. While some agreed with me, others argued that it was just good that they told a different story. Some argued that Athena’s Players didn’t have the human resources. However, I am positive that if Athena’s Players had reached out in the right way, they would have had a number of transgender BU students interested in taking on the part. Lack of resources isn’t the problem here; lack of representation and education is.
I don’t mean to completely tear down what Athena’s Players does. I think it is great that they create a space for women to talk about vaginas openly. However, it is important to remember that not all women have or have always had vaginas. We must make room for these women in our conversations about womanhood, and we must make room for them on our stages. I’m sorry if this all comes off as preachy. I don’t mean for it to be condescending. I do want to make sure that we are conscious of what stories we tell and how we tell them. I want to establish a dialogue that opens itself up for trans women in the theater.