2018 has given us tons of stellar acting performances on screens large and small — from Viola Davis’ badass heistress in Widows to Sandra Oh’s Emmy-nominated, assassin-obsessed MI5 officer in Killing Eve. But the title of best performance of the year has to go to MJ Rodriguez as one of the emotional cores of FX’s Pose — despite her not being individually recognized in early awards conversations.
For the uninitiated, Pose chronicles the lived experiences of Black and brown queer people in the ballroom world of the late ‘80s. The family drama centers on Blanca (Rodriguez), mother of the new House of Evangelista who’s fighting to establish a legacy, her sometimes-defiant house children and the members of her old house who’ve become her biggest rivals.
Since it’s premiere this summer, the show has been applauded for a number of history-making feats: the first to center five trans actress as series regulars; the first to have a trans woman of color in its writers room; and the first to have an episode directed by a black trans woman. Pose even nabbed two Golden Globe nominations, for Billy Porter’s role as a father figure to the community and best drama series.
Such recognition is undoubtedly deserved and truly only the beginning of accolades the show should garner in the coming year. But it’s important to highlight the talent on display when Rodriguez, in particular, comes on screen.
Take for example a scene late in the first episode of the show when Blanca pleads to Charlayne Woodard’s Helena St. Rogers, the dean of dance, to allow her house son Damon to audition despite missing the deadline.
“Do you know what the greatest pain a person can feel is, the greatest tragedy a life can experience?” she asks. Her eyes wet with concern, Rodriguez’s left cheek twitches ever so slightly, letting on to a pain and passion and purpose even her words could never contain. “That is having a truth inside of you and you not being able to share it. It is having a great beauty and no one there to see it.”
When asked by St. Rogers who she is exactly, she proclaims with prideful desperation, “I’m his mother.”
Or the entirety of episode five when Blanca’s personal life comes back to haunt her in the form of a transphobic and abusive sister and brother. She reconnects with her estranged siblings in the aftermath of their mother’s death. While the episode features a number of other important narratives, Rodriguez’s on-screen energy pulls the audience in.
Or during the benefit concert Porter’s Pray-Tell has planned for his lover and other patients dying of AIDS-related complications in a hospital wing in the “Love is the Message” episode. Blanca’s performing “Home” from The Wiz and in the middle of the song, she stops. She’s struck by a Black woman in the audience and is confronted for the first time with what she foresees might be her future after having been diagnosed with HIV in an earlier episode. She says nothing, and Pray-Tell saves her by joining in on the song, but it’s the look in Rodriguez’s eyes that conveys all we need to know.
I’ve heard industry rumblings that some anti-trans and/or ignorant detractors believe Rodriguez (and her castmates) isn’t acting at all; that she, as a trans woman, is not stretching herself in taking on this character. But it is in this intimate knowing of Blanca that Rodriguez’s skill shines.
The truest, most pure part of the art of acting involves the task of becoming. The best actors don a persona and a being, allowing themselves to take a back seat in telling a most relevant story. They exhume the histories of our ancestors and allow them to inform their performance. They come to know the character, and themselves, beyond words on page and offer onlookers the chance to get to know both at once as well.
What Rodriguez has delivered, on every single episode of Pose, is the highest form of craftwork. She breathes life and struggle into the words of the script — which admittedly has its eye-rolling, ballroom 101 moments because cishets are watching. She capably shoulders a narrative that is sometimes campy, but always grounded and real. She rips her heart out, places it on the table in front of us and dares viewers to feel.
And in exposing herself, she gives audiences the permission to do the same.
If this doesn’t deserve to be recognized as the best performance of the year, I’m not sure what ever will.