Diggs is the first black actor to portray the fictional East German transgender rock star on Broadway, but he's not just any black actor. He is — as author James Hannaham reminds us — the man Ebony dubbed Diggs in 2005 the "black Clark Gable."
Not because he has comically oversized ears and wooden teeth, but because Clark Gable was masculinity in the golden era of Hollywood. Ever since whinin' up to Angie Bassett and returning the grooves of a generation of women, Diggs has been a sex symbol and "leading man type" — a point that Hannaham contends might not sit well with everyone:
Some people who see the show will probably raise the age-old objection to the spectacle of black male performers cross-dressing. The roster of comedy stars who have regularly done drag is almost a who’s who of top-grossing black comics: Flip Wilson, Tyler Perry, Martin Lawrence, Eddie Murphy. Black folks wary of mainstream — that is to say, predominantly white — tastes argue that white consumers are reveling in the degradation of black masculinity. In 2006, for example, Dave Chappelle insinuated, while speaking to Oprah Winfrey, that doing drag has negative effects on the black male image, and that white power brokers coerce these black stars into feminizing themselves all the way to the bank.
It's not an argument without merit. Black men, historically, have been emasculated in America for hundreds of years from Kunta Kente to Jim Crow to Eric Garner, so that in the black community, masculinity is almost as important as, well, the gay community.
In both exist exaggerated ideals of masculinity with little consideration for what it actually means to be a man. We're slowly inching towards a post-racial, post-gender society where such considerations will be moot, but for the here and the now, the black community is very protective of a black man's masculinity. And for the black Clark Gable to star in Hedwig and the Angry Inch is kind of a big deal.
Diggs, however — a Broadway baby since he used to measure a year in love — had no reservations because Hedwig was his dream role. He just "assumed that nobody would ever have the open-mindedness to cast this character black.’’
Diggs is enduring eight hour rehearsals with the can-do, go-getter attitude that's made him one of the few stars with a reputation beyond reproach. He's the quintessential nice guy, but Hedwig is giving him a chance to finally show 'em what Taye Diggs is made of — besides his quite obvious attributes.
"This is me telling myself, 'O.K., bitch, put your money where your mouth is. You’ve been telling agents and your best friends' — I told Idina — 'I want a chance to show everybody everything. I can dance and I can sing, and everybody knows I can act.'"
Go head, bitch!
Now for the other question this article raises: Is transgender now "mainstream?" It's increasingly becoming so in this brave new world that has such people like Caitlyn Jenner, Laverne Cox, Janet Mock, Jazz Jennings, Candis Cayne, et al in it. This is the same world where the hottest role on Broadway requires belting about a botched gender confirmation surgery.
After all, Hedwig started out very much outside of the mainstream — in a queer dive bar in downtown New York at a time when people still visited Times Square for drugs and hookers. It was a good time, but those roots are as transgressive as one can get. Yet 20 years later, it's snatching Tony Awards and attracting marquee talent (including Neil Patrick Harris, Michael C. Hall, Darren Criss, and Andrew Rannells so far).
But casting Taye Diggs kind of gives the show back some of its...street cred. And that's sort of the point, says Hedwig co-creator, Stephen Trask:
"The whole point of many of the songs and much of the subject matter of the show was to break down the walls between different categories that we perceive as being opposites, like male and female or straight and gay."
And like most great works, it's also about the universality of love. The many, many seasons of love. If an original cast member of Rent can't convey that, who can?
Les Fabian Brathwaite — noted wig in a box.