Nick Mwaluko’s “S/HE” and Some Thoughts on (Cross-)Gender Casting
S/HE, by Tanzanian born, Kenyan raised, playwright Nanno “Nick” Mwaluko, is a brave exploration of a 17-year old Black woman’s journey as she transitions sartorially and then surgically from female to male.
The play opens with a school playground scene that foregrounds Sam(antha)’s difference from her female classmates and her insistence that “I’m not no she.” When she reaches in her pants with the promise of revealing to them her maleness, she finds she has gotten her period: “Shit! Blood downstairs. Oh God, not again.” In this moment, the crudeness of Sam’s prior ‘cock’-pride is immediately replaced with sympathy for her, for her frustration, for her struggle to be seen by others as she sees herself. Tired of being ridiculed for her appearance, Sam drops out of school and spends her days working at a bakery, only to face similar interrogation over how she dresses from Lester, her boss.
Scene III depicts the impact Sam’s gender identity has had on her mother, a single working mom who relies on cigarettes and whatever alcohol she can get her hands on to cope with her life. This scene escalates into an argument that does a great job of dramatizing the complexity of both characters’ positions. Sam’s mom suspects Sam of wanting to “switch” genders because she doesn’t want her mom’s plight; Sam is appalled by his mother’s interpretation.
MOM: I come home half-dead you think, ‘Hooo-wee, life sure is tough for a Black woman. Don’t want that. So maybe I should switch. Become a Black man. Might be easier.
SAM: Is that what you think this is?
MOM: Know what is? This is a Black man with no high school diploma in this country in this day and age. So, let me ask you: How far do you honestly think you can get in life?
The argument culminates in Sam being kicked out for refusing to return to school and is followed by a short scene with Same roaming in the rain while on the phone with her dad, who does not give her a place to stay either. Scene five is a standout scene between Sam and her ex-girlfriend, Jill, that underscores the unruly, uncontainable nature of gender roles and sexual orientation, with particular attention to the way stereotypes can be exploded in trans-people’s relationships. Here’s a sample:
(Jill gives Sam a hypothetical scenario)
Jill: February. Dead of winter. We’re holding hands marching side by side with an army of dykes. Who are you?
Sam: Your lover.
Jill: Man or woman? Who are you?
Sam: Right now or right there and then?
Jill: Who are you Sam?
Sam: A man who looks like a woman in love with a lesbian who cheated on me with a biological man?
Jill continues, with mounting anger of her own, to try to understand Sam, questioning whether Sam’s desire for surgery stems from a hatred of men, women, her mom, etc. She sees Sam’s desire as selfish, which prompts Sam to ask, “What about my freedom? …my truth?” Race figures heavily in this moment and elsewhere, with Jill equating Sam’s rejection of her femaleness to total lack of appreciation for “the slave woman who died so you could have your freedom because of her truth[.]” And with Sam claiming:
“If my body don’t make sense it’s ’cause the world don’t. Not when a cop can shoot fifty-plus bullets at a Black man then go scot-free. Meanwhile the Internet says what? We are aaaaalll connected….Since when is my body the truth? Especially because I’m Black. Naah, not in my world–which is nowhere near the world my parents gave me….Man, woman, in between, I decide….In my world? My baby could be a girl on Monday, boy Tuesday, whatever Wednesday.”
Jill responds: “That’s crazy.”
Sam: “So don’t believe what I believe in, Jill. But give me room to survive…”
Rather than allow Sam to spend the night, she sends him home, insisting that’s what ‘real man’ would do. So he does, but not before stealing money from Jill. Sam’s mom and Jill talk disapprovingly on the phone about Sam, and a dreamlike scene ensues in which Sam imagines his mom warmly receiving him, accepting his gender, and him gifting her with an envelope of cash. Sam ends up back at Jill’s sleeping on the floor. In the final scene, Sam undergoes surgery and his doctor delivers a lengthy monologue about the Service doctors like himself do the trans-community. The play ends with a female actor and a male actor, side by side, representative of Sam before and after surgery, inquiring who the other is.
On (Cross-)Gender Casting:
S/HE calls for a three-person cast that will perform a combined total of ten roles. In the production notes, Mwaluko specifies that “all characters except Sam 2 (an anatomical male version of Sam) should be PLAYED EXCLUSIVELY BY WOMEN, meaning only anatomical females can play these roles.” This means, implicitly, that male roles in the play, such as Sam’s boss, Lester, and Dr. Rustein will be played by cross-gender. I am wondering if, in the world of this play, it would not have made more sense to stipulate that all other parts also be performed ‘anatomically’ correctly, so to speak?
Mwaluko’s stipulation on casting is an interesting counterpoint to the numerous contemporary plays that encourage total freedom in casting gender. Both scenarios compel us to think about how (cross) gender casting has evolved and how it functions as well as the growing social awareness (and, dare I say, acceptance) and visibility of the transgendered population.
How do you feel about (cross-)gender casting? Are there examples you can think of in which it just did not work in a play you read/saw? Examples of great success with it that are worth sharing?
Here’s a touching piece by Mwaluko from 11/20/07 (Transgender Remembrance Day), entitled “Becoming a Man.”
A fantastic U People interview from 9/23/08 with Mwaluko in which he discusses passing as a boy in Kenya and transitioning from F to M as an immigrant in the US.
*Nick Mwaluko’s play S/HE can be read in the anthology Plays and Playwrights 2009 edited by Martin Denton.