Dallas — Receiving a $150,000 grant from Theatre Communications Group (TCG) is a big deal, especially when it is the only one in its category given to recipients in the state of Texas. Because of the grant, the Dallas Children’s Theater (DCT) is able to co-produce, along Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts and in partnership with the First Unitarian Church of Dallas, a new play commissioned of Bruce R. Coleman. Andi Boi is the story of a transgender teen who for the first time, enters school identifying as a male.
According to the CDC (Center for Disease Control), two percent of high school students identify as transgender, however 35 percent of those students have attempted suicide. The need to talk about this is urgent. We wanted to know more about DCT’s decision to produce a work on this topic, so we had a conversation with Executive Artistic Director Robyn Flatt and playwright Coleman.
Coleman is also the director of this Teen Scene Players production, and the cast features four Booker T. students Christian Arrubla, Wynn Droz, Kadar Price, and Zander Pryor, Grand Prairie Fine Arts Academy student Shyperia Brown and adult actors Jennifer Kuenzer, Catherine Whiteman, and Lee Jamison. There are six performances from Feb. 7 to Feb. 15; you can purchase tickets ($16) here.
TheaterJones: Bruce, what was the genesis for this play?
Bruce: The Dallas Children’s Theater has a history of producing plays that deal with teen issues. Coy Covington [DCT’s Executive Assistant] suggested to Robin that it was time to look at this subject. Coy has been a big champion of my writing for years. I met with Robyn, talked about the possibilities. Next, I talked with Zander Pryor, and his mother. He is someone I have known for several years who had recently gone through this experience. I then wrote the script with input from Zander and his mom.
It has been in development for about two-and-a-half years following the first table reading for DCT’s Board of Directors. Everybody was really excited about it, so we decided to move forward by presenting a staged reading of the play as part of a festival. We just kind of exploded after that. I’ve been taking care of Andi every step of the way.
The language for effectively communicating with the transgender community is still not widely known and understood. This next question is intended to clarify, to understand and represent accurately for readers. I have noticed the spelling ‘boi’ is used and I’m wondering whether that spelling is used in the community. Does that spelling have meaning in the transgender community?
Bruce: I don’t think so. It doesn’t in this play. As a matter of fact, the explanation in the play is that Andi gets to choose his own name. Instead of a “y” in Andi and a “y” in boy, Andi goes with “i” because that is who He is. It is identity. For me, it does not have a cultural community significance. It has a significance to Andi’s own person. It is part of the vernacular that crosses lots of cultures and communities. It is in the musical lexicon a lot that teenagers listen to. But for Andi it is completely about his own identity.
Robyn, from your perspective as a producer, how and why this play now?
Robyn: So often what you do is defined by the spaces to which you have access. This 10,000 square foot building is significantly larger than the one we were in before. So, we asked ourselves what we could do for our teenagers. How can we better reach them? What plays might they want to see?
After talking with them we realized they wanted to be in the plays, not to see them. They wanted stories about themselves, about their lives. We decided to explore that by asking a different set of questions beginning with some of the issues these kids are facing. For example, one of the students was bullied out of her school. We followed-up on that and developed a piece which addressed that issue.
Another thing learned was the importance of addressing teens where they live. Once realized, we continued having these conversations with the teens and developing pieces which responded to the issues identified. This process is now just part of our DNA.
Our role as a theater is to start conversations on topics that may not be as familiar. Maybe we don’t have the vocabulary to talk about them, but through theater and through having discussions about the dramatic piece with experts in that field, we can build a vocabulary and our understanding with people who have not had much experience.
Bruce: It’s a safe place to have an uncomfortable conversation.
Robyn: Exactly. So often people think children’s theater is where we do cute and happy pieces. In reality, young children are not always happy. They too are looking for answers. If we as adults do not give them a place where they can find some of these answers, then what are we doing?
Sometimes the parents are at a loss. A lot of us did not grow up with cell phones. We did not know that a boyfriend could call his girlfriend (or she, him) 15 times in a night and keep her awake.
Without some of these plays, I would not have had an awareness of this new world. We can be much better parents because we can give advice from a standpoint of knowledge, not anger.
I am passionate about bringing material to the forefront that deeply matters to the individual. We want to provide an environment in which they can soar.
Is it accurate to say you had produced six original plays by one playwright [Linda Daugherty] prior to Bruce’s play?
Robyn: We’ve done [Laurie Brooks' plays] Deadly Weapons and Everyday Heroes but they weren’t out of the community of kids we were working with. We did do talkbacks. We attracted the attention of Susan Sugarman, founder of Girls to Women, and also Boys to Men. She contacted us about how best to provide assistance. Susan has been a valuable resource, especially in helping us find the right materials to research.
Bruce: This is my 15th play to be produced in [North Texas]. One thing that made it stand out is its humor. Kids are funny. There is also a lot of warmth and wit. Andi is a smart, funny kid. Andi Boi doesn’t shy away from the darkness of the subject matter, but the darkness of the subject matter is not the main event.
Robyn: As a result, we feel this makes the piece more accessible. Some people go into this lacking the knowledge and information needed to actually be able to help.
Bruce: In Andi Boi, I have tried to model kindness, empathy, love and friendship. There are confrontations along the way, but the confrontations are dealt with in a positive way.
Robyn: The primary inspiration for this was definitely Coy. Another important source of inspiration was Zander because we knew him from classes here at DCT, and from Booker T. We value him as someone who is in our mix with a story that needs to be told. Because of these connections, there is already a community in place that is supportive of this person.
Bruce: It is very important to clarify that this is not Zander’s story. While he and his mom were my main resources through this process, he wasn’t initially sure he wanted to participate as an actor. After the festival reading when it looked like we were actually going to produce it, he and I had a conversation where I could address his concerns. There is an expression that is used in the play, “dead name,” the name you were called before you transitioned.
Is the language of the play yours, or is it of this community?
Bruce: It is from the community.
Robyn: See? This is what I meant — theater provides an opportunity for us to learn.
Bruce: One of the things that is so important to Zander is that that name never be revived.
Robyn: He is very clear about the fact that, in the play, “I was always Andi. That is who I am.” I realized I didn’t have to worry about going back and searching for the right pronoun to use because he was always here.
Bruce: This is not autobiographical. He was a resource for me, but this is not his story. The transgender community is not a monolith.
Did you ever encounter pushback or negativity?
Robyn: Our board strongly supported the direction we were going. In the process of development of a play, you need to have several different kinds of audiences. When we have a new script, we like to have readings with an audience. With this one, we had support from TCG to support this work so we could pay actors to work with us to work at five different locations. It was a competitive grant, the only one in Texas for this particular grant. During those presentations, there was always a discussion afterwards. People were marvelous in bringing up concerns, issues, legitimate. We listened, understanding we could not answer every concern, or that we should try to.
Bruce: It was a very exciting process. I had never been through this type of process. It showed me people were paying attention, invested enough to ask questions. It changed things significantly over the course of those two weeks.
There’s a component of the grant which has to do with technology. It was by chance that I had written games into the script. We employed Josh Grob, who has taken the storyboard and created 3D projections for use during the show. Josh is developing an app. There will be an app that the audience can use.
Are you casting from your DCT kids?
Robyn: We started with Booker T., our producing partner. We had auditions there and cast several of their students. They have been very supportive of Zander and of the DCT.
Bruce: I had an experience during a talkback where someone said, “well my experience was harder” to which I responded, “I appreciate that, but this is Andi’s story.”
Robyn: We think it is important to have several different audiences which we accomplish through readings. We were fortunate to have a TCG grant to support this work and enable us to pay the actors. They were one of six across the country and the only one in Texas [for this particular grant]. There was always a discussion afterwards. Audiences were marvelous in bringing up things they didn’t understand, things about which they had concerns.
Is there anything else you would want viewers to know?
Bruce: It is going to be unlike anything they’ve seen. I can almost guarantee it is a story they haven’t heard before. The actors are wonderful.
Robyn: The story has a universality. Having hard times is part of the human experience.