Chaz Bono (right) & singer/drag entertainer Courtney Act at the Dancing With The Stars Season 17 wrap party on November 26, 2013 | Photo: Getty
It’s time for some new ascendance for trans transcendance, and Chaz Bono is helping lead the way. Let me explain: Transgender men and women are a vital part of the culture and have become more visible in recent years, thanks to increasing LGBT representation. But when it comes to show biz opportunities, the choices offered to them have often been limited by rules and perception. They are men and women, right? So why aren’t these men and women allowed to play all sorts of men and women, not just transgender? Shouldn’t an actor be able to portray multiple varieties of the gender they happen to be, regardless of what genitals they were born with?
Transgender actors certainly get to play trans characters—that’s a given. And non-transgender actors get to play them too, no matter what their personal history is. After all, the biologically born male Jared Leto played a male-to-female transsexual in Dallas Buyers Club and voila, he’s virtually got the Oscar in the handbag. And in 2005, Felicity Huffman—a biologically born woman—played a MTF in the movie Transamerica and no one complained; in fact, she was Oscar-nominated for her achievement as well. It’s the type of casting that’s generally regarded as brave, edgy, and admirable, especially when done well, as in those cases. So why can’t we flip the trend around and have a transsexual man or woman play a biologically born man or woman? It only makes sense. It would involve a man playing a man and a woman playing a woman. Duh! How about Candis Cayne in The Cindy Crawford Story? I’m serious. Or Chaz Bono as…Wait a second.
I just heard that Chaz is playing “Jerry, an eccentric junkie hoarder” in a new movie thriller called Dirty, so I contacted Chaz’s publicist for some background, and he said the character was born biologically male! A (trans) man has been cast as a (non-trans) man. Cheers, Chaz. This is a wonderful step forward in the world of creative possibilities. You’re using your maleness to expand career ops for pre-ops, post-ops, and everyone else too. Just ignore your mama’s constant singing of “This is a woman’s world,” LOL.
“So this is your second drag role?” I quipped to Michael McKean, who was a replacement for Edna Turnblad in Hairspray in 2004 and is now playing FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover in a straight play, All The Way. “It’s all undergarments this time,” he laughed, sitting down for a chat at an open rehearsal. “Do you believe the rumor that [talk show host] Johnny Carson wore panties?” McKean playfully added by way of a conversational gambit. “Yes,” I replied, playing along. “I always suspected something unusual was happening under that desk.”
And then we got serious. All The Way is Robert Schenkkan’s play about Lyndon Johnson’s first year as President, most notably his battle to pass the 1964 civil rights bill. “I saw it in Ashland, Oregon,” McKean told me. “[Producer] Jeffrey Richards said, ‘What did you think? Do you want to play J. Edgar Hoover?’ I said, ‘I’m a little too tall, but OK, as long as there’s a taller Lyndon Johnson.’ They got Bryan Cranston, who’s absolutely terrific.”
And does the play address gossipy stuff like Hoover’s supposed cross dressing or the fact that LBJ allegedly hit on Jackie Kennedy practically the second JFK died? Not really, said McKean. (Oh, well. I’ll see it anyway.) “Schenkkan has got a historical perspective,” explained the New York-born actor, who’s known for This Is Spinal Tap, Family Tree, and so many other movies and shows. “He’s also a playwright and he’s writing human beings.” In playing these roles, he added, “You can’t approach anyone like a historical figure. Even someone as grand with his own ego as Hoover didn’t wake up and think, ‘What historical thing should I do today?’ His main business was in trying to destroy Martin Luther King. In a black populist leader on the left, he saw something that could roll over him. But you can’t play a guy as an evil guy and I don’t think he believed he was the scourge of the country. He was in office longer than anyone—for almost 40 years. He had to die [to lose that position].”
McKean reminded me that back in the Jim Crow-era, the Southern Democrats happened to be the worst racists of all. The slave-freeing Lincoln was Republican, so the opposite team became the anti-black one. “In 1968,” he went on, “Nixon said, ‘You don’t like civil rights? Come to us.’ And they did.” The result obviously helped pave the way for the red-state-blue-state divide that now makes our country eternally schizo.
But for consistency’s sake, in All The Way, McKean also plays Senator Robert Byrd, another anti-civil rightsman, “though he softened later on, much as George Wallace did.” After portraying two biased figures every night, does McKean go home and take it out on wife Annette O’Toole? “Yes,” he answered, laughing. “She can take it. I married her for it!” In addition to the fact that she looks great in a dress.
Justin Vivian Bond and Gibson Frazier in 'A Man's a Man' | Photo by Richard Termine
ATTENTION ALL BRECHT GIRLS
This is the first time I won’t need a segue, seeing as I’m about to discuss a revival of a Bertolt Brecht play called A Man’s A Man. Classic Stage Company has brought that work back, with direction by Brian Kulick and music by Duncan Sheik, and the result is something you should definitely avant to let your garde down for. Set in the Kiplingesque India of 1925—as signified by movable orange oil barrels, jungle foliage, and a giant Ganesh—it’s a sprawling comedy with fourth-wall breaking, social commentary, and a creeping darker tone as the characters change along with the scenery. Convincingly projecting impressionability, Gibson Frazier is Galy Gay, an innocent who gets swept up into Her Majesty’s militarism, and Justin Vivian Bond is perfectly Brechtian as the Widow Begbick, popping up at intermission to sing “a song that was cut from Act Two.” The resulting show may be challenging, but it’s like nothing you’ll see on Broadway—and that’s a good review. Are you woman enough?
“What’s your name?” one hired lady asked me. “Liz,” I replied, dryly.
“Do you want to come with me, Liz?” she asked. “No. My mama said to never leave with strangers,” I deadpanned.
“It’s not very far,” she swore.
“That’s what they all say,” I whinnied.
Well, my more cooperative friend went off with one such person and ended up in a hallway with his eyes closed and the guy stroking my friend’s calves while cooing, “Isn’t it amazing how love squeezes us and then lets us go?” Another critic was walking around with a piece of paper he’d been given, instructing him to make out with someone. (I ignored him; critics are terrible at sex.) The whole time, a creature in a sumptuous blue gown and white mask was moving her hands around onstage as a whip was cracked and numbers were randomly announced, and the whole thing felt like an out-of-town banker’s “wild night” to tell the folks back home about. I was in agony, but then they seated us for dinner, and after a lobster served in a birdcage, large chunks of roast duckling pig, and a loaf of bread, I somehow felt much better. Besides, the real show had started, with outstanding choreographed numbers, circusy routines, and all kinds of other swirling madness, and by the end, I was convinced that only a cameo by Chaz Bono as J. Edgar Hoover could make this experience more surreally enchanting.