Dallas — Soon after British playwright Paul Kalburgi moved to Dallas in the summer of 2015 when his husband, Lohit, was transferred here for his job, a news story broke that he couldn’t ignore. The decomposed body of a transgender woman was found in a field in the Dallas Medical District off Riverside Drive. It took authorities a while to identify her.
Having been a television producer in London and a playwright with an interest in verbatim theater—often called documentary theater, as in the work of Moises Kaufman and the Tectonic Theater Project (The Laramie Project), and Anna Deveare Smith (Fires in the Mirror)—he was pulled to this story after attending a vigil for Schuler in Reverchon Park. Soon after, he set up his first interview at Café Brazil in the Bishop Arts District, and the stories of the killings of transgender women—particularly transgender women of color—kept emerging.
“Verbatim theater works best when the writer can be immersed in the process,” Kalburgi says. “When you read more about Shade’s story, you realize it’s happening all over the U.S., that transgender women of color are a high risk of sexual violence.”
Eventually he had enough to put together a reading at the South Dallas Cultural Center in May 2016, and invited several movers and shakers in DFW theater, including Teresa Walsh of the Bishop Arts Theater Center. She couldn’t come, but later read the script and agreed to program it in the slot that had been reserved for her theater’s LBGT play festival.
The work, a 120-minute play called In the Tall Grass, premieres this weekend at the BATC. The show features seven actors—two of them transgender—playing about 70 characters speaking dialogue directly from the interviews and other documents.
“You’ll see the actors changing costumes onstage,” Kalburgi says. “It’s very transparent.”
That initial R&D reading was directed by British film and theater director Anna Jones, a friend of Kalburgi’s who came to town in May 2016 for a week; she also helped secure funding from the city of Dallas for the project. Paul, Lohit, and their two sons, had moved to Madrid, Spain, but Kalburgi kept working on the script through several incarnations.
“This is a Dallas story and I wanted it to premiere here,” he says.
Kalburgi, 33, was born in Stockton-on-Tees in the northeast of England, and moved to London at 18. In his 20s, he met Lohit, and they later married and adopted children. Kalburgi studied writing for stage and screen, and was particularly influenced by the work of British playwright Alecky Blythe.
“I had worked on another verbatim play, called The Countess, and by coincidence, that character was also transgender,” he says. That play was based on the true story of a woman who was behind a welfare scandal in England.
He has also written musicals (Vegas with a V, inspired by the film Showgirls), and a short play called Maxine, about a cross-dresser, that was produced in London. He also has Almost the Birthday Party, an LBGT riff on Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party, and teaches playwriting workshops.
Verbatim theater is where his passion lies.
“I will listen to a one-hour tape for 10 hours to get it down to every pause,” he says. “When the audience sees this play I’d like to take them on my journey.”
Shade Schuler was homeless and had to do what she could to live. “Ironically, they call it ‘survival sex work’ and that’s what killing them,” says Kalburgi.
Among the statistics Kalburgi found in his prep, which included a trip to Atlanta for research on transphobia: In every state in the U.S., except Illinois and California, “trans panic” is a legal defense in violence against transgender people. In his interviews with transpeople and their allies, the story became focused on violence against transgender women of color; even threads about transpeople in the military and the ongoing “bathroom bill” debate were cut to focus on this story.
“What I learned in the R&D was that I needed to contrast the dark material with what’s happening in the trans community,” he says, noting that transphobia also comes from cisgender gay men.
In casting the production here, he wanted to include more transgender actors, even looking to an L.A.-based talent agency called Transgender Talent, which represents transpeople in the entertainment industry. They had clients in Houston, but none in Dallas.
“It’s the right thing to do, but also if I can to provide a job to a transgender person, that’s what I’m going to do,” he says. Mieko Hicks, a theater student at Richland College, is in the cast; as is transgender activist Shannon Walker. Another transgender actress, Amira Gray, was in the R&D phase but couldn’t be in premiere production.
Shade is not represented as a speaking character, but her spirit is of course all over it. Her brother, who eventually agreed to be interviewed, is quoted. “Shade’s parents haven’t publicly mourned her death,” Kalburgi says.
He hopes that this play, debuting during Pride weekend in Dallas, will bring more trans awareness to cisgender audiences.
“If this story remains in the transgender community, then I haven’t really done my job.”