Becca Blackwell in ‘Hurricane Diane.’ (Photo: Joan Marcus)
Becca Blackwell has been trudging the actor’s life for two decades, but in spite of New York theater’s insistence that diversity reigns supreme, the trans actor and writer has often had to make their own work. Until now.
“Existing between genres” (as Blackwell identifies) still flummoxes many a creative mind. (The New York Times chief theater critic Ben Brantley’s catty take on non-conforming pronouns in a review of last season’s Head Over Heels sparked a revolt that resulted in a formally issued apology.) But Blackwell takes it all in stride, and now the tides are finally turning in their favor as the not-short-on-opinion actor appears as the title character of Madeleine George’s new play Hurricane Diane at New York Theatre Workshop (co-produced with WP Theater).
George reimagines the Greek god Dionysus as a seductively butch lesbian that descends upon a cul de sac of New Jersey housewives in an attempt to save the planet from self-destruction. How does it feel playing a deity in the 21st century? The Broadway Blog’s editor Matthew Wexler chatted with Blackwell by phone to find out.
The Broadway Blog: It’s great to be finally be talking, as we ran some preview coverage of your solo show They, Themself and Scherm when it ran at Joe’s Pub last year. We’re going to be talking about gender and sexuality so if I flub, just correct me.
Becca Blackwell: I’m the person you can fuck up with. I don’t have much reverence for what I feel people think they should say. I’ve been around long enough that I’m like, “Wow. People are even asking me things?”
BB: New York City isn’t easy. Especially for actors, but you’ve been pretty tenacious.
Blackwell: I don’t have an agent or manager, never have. I made my business because of just doing it, because honestly, up until a few years ago there weren’t any roles for people like me, so I’ve always made my own work — I think by sheer personality and talent and sticking in the business long enough. This business takes a lot of chutzpah, even for a gorgeous white straight cis person, it isn’t easy.
So I say to people that you just have to prepare yourself. You’re making a choice to be an actor or an artist: it’s not something you deserve, nor is it something you should take for granted.
BB: How did this role come to fruition?
Blackwell: Madeleine, I guess, when she was writing this, had me in mind. We grew up in the same Venn diagram of art makers and people. I was one of the only bull dykes —to use the term — acting in New York City on a regular basis since the early 90s… until whenever you want to consider that I became not a bull dyke.
So Madeleine reached out to me and said, “Hey, I’ve written this part, I don’t know how you feel about playing butches anymore, but would you be interested in looking at this.”
So, when she asked me, I was like, of course. And then Leigh Silverman, you know, is a great fucking director and one of the top lesbian freelance directors I think there is. I knew I could trust her as a queer director to take on that kind of thing, and there had never really been any butch representation I had seen here in New York, except for Peggy Shaw doing Menopausal Gentlemen in the late 90s and that was her own piece. I know there’s stuff that happens in small theaters that have real-life butches, but for the most part, I’d never seen anything like that.
BB: Perhaps we see it more in film and TV than theater, but it’s interesting how the business likes to compartmentalize.
Blackwell: We do that whether we think we’re enlightened or elevated or not. I don’t meet very many people I’d want to emulate even if they’re loved. We’re all flawed and judging and it doesn’t matter where you stand on the marginalized scale. In fact, sometimes the more marginalized you are, the more critical you are. I get it. The world is complicated and your feelings can be very real.
I had many breakdowns doing this role because I thought it should be going to someone more marginalized than me, but then I thought, “Why am I doing this?” I’ve never even seen a “me” on stage.
BB: So who is this character of Diane?
Blackwell: A god is a shapeshifter. If anything, Dionysus is typically played by a very effeminate man, and that historically is who played it, because Dionysus has to be very charming and aggressive and passionate, and those aren’t qualities we associate with straight men. Dionysus is the god of fertility, the god of nature, theater — these are things that are not steeped in men or women: it’s steeped in the in-between, what gender we put on gods is for us, not for gods.
I think gods always have a much deeper reverence for women and femininity than most humans do, so you’ll be playing catch-up to try and wrap your head around the fact that women and men are equal. So until a human can actually do that, we won’t be able to think in a god’s terms.
I wasn’t strong enough to be a masculine woman. I get more as a trans person than I ever did as a bull dyke. And that’s the truth. It’s not a happy truth, but it’s the truth. And that’s why I didn’t change my name. It freaks a lot of people out, and they’ll ask, “Why don’t you?” Because that makes it easier for you. But I had my name for so long, why would I change my name to make you more comfortable with me?
BB: I sometimes wonder if cisgender men — and that can be straight or gay, I suppose — get bent out of shape because they think a woman’s power depletes their own.
Blackwell: Gay men, with all the power of being men, can also affect feminine qualities, but when women do that, it’s invisible. Because women who are masculine, it’s like who cares, because the value of women, even to gay men or especially to gay men and to straight men, too, is their attractiveness and their cattiness and their divaness — and what does a bull dyke bring but none of those?
A bull dyke can bring diva, for sure, but they can’t bring traditional attractive high camp. Also, if a woman is masculine, powerful, strong, sexual, and attractive, it then negates what men have, because what’s the power of being a man if you have someone with a vagina who has all the same qualities as you?
BB: So what do you make of Diane’s connection to the four female characters, these very different New Jersey housewives?
Blackwell: The point of Dionysus coming back in this way is that I’m trying to save the world, and I need your help, ‘cause the world is for you. If you can open your eyes to something, you’ll come back to what I’ll take you to, which is a passionate resurgence into an ecstasy of nature. ‘Cause nature’s really complicated and gross and messy, but also really working in itself.
But we were really careful about how this plays out onstage. Diane can’t touch any of the women until they touch her, no seduction can take place unless there’s full buy-in from these people, because we always see dykes or gay people as predators. Because there’s so little representation of masculine dykes, we had to be even more careful, like we had to tell jokes secretly to each other and then make it so that hetero people, or even gay people that are in a hetero mindset, can wrap their heads around.
BB: So is Diane’s job a primal awakening or a bigger awakening of the world?
Blackwell: One of the women’s last words are, “if I don’t get what I want, I have nothing.” Mia Barron is so good, she gives that character so much, and every single person that I’ve talked to after the show is like, “Oh my god, I’m her.” And then Diane, at the end says, “If you don’t care enough to save yourself then I don’t care about you.”
I think what Madeleine has done is write this a really funny sitcom-y play. One night at the end, you could tell that the audience was mad at us, they were like, “Are you fucking kidding me? You had me horse laughing and you do this? Fuck you!”
But when you laugh, your heart opens, and you let things in easier whether you know it or not. That’s where Madeleine’s genius is — finding the balance of humor and then here you are. You are the white lady you’re yelling at for voting for Trump, but you’re her, too. You can’t step away from her. You can post on social media about what a cunt she is, but you are her, too. It’s a very complicated world we’ve weaved.
New York Theatre Workshop
79 East Fourth Street, NYC
Through March 24
Matthew Wexler is The Broadway Blog’s editor. Read more of his work at wexlerwrites.com.