She was 22
She didn’t get a chance to live her life
She was 22
And now she’s gone.
— In the Tall Grass, a eulogy for Shade Schuler
Dallas — The darkened stage fills with people and a stark video of familiar Dallas cityscapes flashes across the timbered backdrop of skyscraper shapes on Rodney Dobbs’ striking set design. Protesters carrying signs reading “Trans Lives Matter” and “Black Lives Matter” shout their message to promote transgender empowerment and peace in a society which has become increasingly violent toward them.
A slender black woman (elegant transgender actress Mieko Hicks) steps forward and says simply, “We need to find a way to protect ourselves and each other.” The actor is speaking the exact words of the woman she is portraying in the world premiere of a gritty, revealing work at Bishop Arts Theatre Center.
In August of 2015 in a field of tall weeds and grasses off Riverside Drive close to the Dallas Medical District, local authorities found a rotting body. The Dallas Police Department put out a description and asked for help in identify the murder victim. After many weeks, the woman was finally identified as 22-year-old Shade Schuler, a transgender woman of color.
British playwright Paul Kalburgi had just moved to Dallas from London with his husband, who was transferred to Texas through his job. Kalburgi followed the murder in the press and began researching the growing national crisis of transgender women of color falling victim to violence, abuse, discrimination and murder. Shade was the 13th transgender woman killed in 2015 in the U.S. His new friends in the local LGBT community knew little of their trans allies and advocates, so the playwright decided to document his ongoing research in a work of verbatim theater, a play constructed exclusively from the exact words spoken by people interviewed on the topic.
The result is In the Tall Grass, a work which began as a reading at the South Dallas Cultural Center in May 2016. BATC Artistic Director Teresa Coleman Wash invited Kalburgi to direct a full production of the play in this venue, just blocks away from his first interview, during LGBT Pride Week.
According to the program notes, the 125-minute play compresses two years of research, over 40 interviews, plus 25 hours of recordings. The show is performed by seven actors, including two transgender actresses, playing more than 70 characters, each word and pause a faithful reproduction of the tapes. The result is a fascinating and immersive evening filled with voices that demand to be heard speaking of the brave choices and dangerous lifestyle that fall to trans women of color, who are often disowned by their own families, unable to find work, and end up hooked on drugs and prostituting their bodies to simply survive.
The first act is filled with the poignant voices of the people who knew the murdered girl because they were working the same mean streets. They tell us Shade was just starting the transition process through “a couple of shots,” daring in her dress, drug addicted, homeless and too eager for love to be cautious. One woman recalls telling Shade, “As a trans woman you got to be careful the cars you jump into.”
The dead woman’s brother comes forward, grieving and ashamed that other members of his family had cast his trans sister aside. He appears at regular intervals, speaking of Shade’s precarious life, his eyes filling with tears as he recalls taking her for a burger when she phoned to say she was hungry and had no place to go.
A preacher proclaims, “They’re prostitutes pretending to be women and they’re paying the price for their sins. Another man snarls and says, “If a trans woman has sex with a straight man, she deserves to die.” Shocking and disgusting enough, but then the reporter steps forward to inform us that “you can legally murder a trans person in 48 states.” Horrible.
Through it all, we hear the voice of a journalist named Doug, played by Neil Rogers, an amalgam of the playwright and a Dallas reporter who covered Shade’s story. Doug asks hard questions of the police, who are sometimes accused of soliciting sex with trans women as an option for getting hauled in for prostitution. He listens with sympathetic intentness to the many voices in the transgender community. All the actors step in and out of their many roles and onstage costume changes with conviction and confidence, only occasionally missing a pronoun or a cue on opening weekend. Cast members are Mieko Hicks, Kyndra Mack, Neil Rogers, LaMar Roheem Staton, Sheila D. Rose, Michael Salimitari and Shannon Walker, who is a transgender activist.
There is kindness in the lives of these women. Rev. Jeff—based on interviews with Dallas activist and priest Rev. Dr. Jeff Hood and played by Salimitari—says, “Shade believed God created her that way,” and urges his audiences to “push back against normative stereotypes” of gender and race.
He leads the play’s most dramatic and touching scene in the gathering of trans activists to the field where Shade’s body was dumped. Scott Davis’s dramatic lighting flashes a video of tall grass prairie strung with electric utility lines in the background, and jagged with yellow police tape in the foreground. Here, Rev. Jeff bring his chalice and bread and reaches down and touches the sticky grass, “the black spot in the shape of a body.” The true man of the faith is moved to say, “What you have done to the least of these, you have done to me.” It’s a riveting moment in a play that brings the darker raw experiences of poor transgender women of color to light in a vital, gritty platform.
The second act, which follows a 15-minute intermission, includes several extensive sections focused on successful activist campaigns headed by transgender women of color in Atlanta, particularly Tracee McDaniel, a strong voice for fair treatment of the city’s trans population. The flow of the show could perhaps better be served to trim it to 90 minutes and skip the time-out. While the arguments in Atlanta’s city council become too long and a little tedious, the scenes do show a positive growing force in the community to reduce the hardships for transgender women.
Names of transgender women who have been killed since the play went into production are printed in the program and read aloud by the cast and audience in a moving memorial to their sisters who have died from the ignorance and evil of hate and fear. The rhythm of the names, some touchingly playful inventions, feels like prayer, and we leave the theater with a powerful insight into the lives of the trials of people with the courage to simply be themselves in the face of ignorance and bigotry. May knowledge and justice prevail, and thanks to BATC for the platform.