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Hannah Berk

DC Queer Theatre Festival Celebrates Local LGBTQ Playwrights

Written by Hannah Berk

This article was first published in Tagg Magazine here.

On November 23, the seventh annual D.C. Queer Theatre Festival will kick off with the first of three interactive table readings of brand new, unpublished plays by local LGBTQ artists. The festival guarantees that audiences will encounter work never before produced, and also offers a new way to engage with that work by providing pivotal feedback to the featured playwrights while their work is still in progress. “We like to change up the festival each year,” says Artistic Director and co-founder of the festival Matt Ripa, “to keep [it] fresh and to honor the different styles and work that queer artists are creating in the D.C. area. For this year’s festival, audiences can expect exciting new plays that are thought provoking and be the first to hear brand new scripts that might be on stages soon.”

This year’s plays were selected from among over 20 entries and represent a breadth of genre, from a comedy (R. Eric Thomas) to local history (Bob Bartlett) to a family drama (Esther Rodriguez). The winning playwrights have the opportunity to work with a professional director and dramaturg while they develop their scripts over the course of rehearsals. Finally, plays will be performed as staged table readings for the public.

Eric Thomas, “Crying on Television,” November 23, 2019 at 7 p.m.

Crying on Televisiondescribed as “a comedy about trying to make a connection through a screen,” centers themes of community, race, and our personal relationships with television. “I’m interested in having conversations about where people belong, where they don’t belong,” says playwright R. Eric Thomas. The theater is a well-suited venue for this kind of dialogue, and Thomas looks forward to the audience feedback element of the festival. “You learn so much when an audience watches a comedy,” he says. “It can be a communal experience. I’m hoping people walk away having conversations about community and the people they don’t normally think about much.”

Thomas wears many writer hats, including columnist at, memoirist/essayist, and host of The Moth in Philadelphia and D.C. While his plays have been featured in several U.S. cities, including his hometown of Baltimore, Crying on Television marks his D.C. metro debut. “I’m excited to get more involved in the vibrant D.C. theater scene,” Thomas says. “Baltimore has a theater scene that doesn’t get enough credit, and D.C. is a place where a lot of really exciting, interesting things are happening.”

Bob Bartlett, “UNION,” December 7, 2019 at 7 p.m.

UNION will be Bob Bartlett’s second production with the DC Queer Theatre Festival, following his 2014 winning play about the export of violent homophobia from the U.S. to Uganda. Through UNION, Bartlett hopes to give audiences a fuller sense of Walt Whitman’s character and queerness. “My play considers his years living and loving in D.C. (and cruising Pennsylvania Avenue in a horse-drawn streetcar),” says Bartlett, “as well as his affinity for Lincoln and belief in the future of American democracy…I was most interested in exploring Whitman’s sexuality while he lived in our city and his attitudes about race, which were not unlike those of white men of the period.”

This play strikes a personal chord with Bartlett, who has long wanted to write about the poet’s D.C. years. “Like so many, I discovered Leaves of Grass in high school, and I’ve had a copy, multiple copies, with me since,” says Bartlett. “Expansive and audacious, to say the least, the book continues to inspire and even guide us…It was the first gay book I’d ever read.” For Bartlett, it’s meaningful to have this play debut at a festival that centers around the LGBTQ community. “While I believe UNION will resonate with all audiences, I hope that queer audiences experience the play on another level.”

Esther Rodriguez, “We All Fall Down,” February 22, 2020 at 7:00 pm

We All Fall Down centers a young woman navigating her family dynamics in the aftermath of a suicide attempt and the leadup to coming out. “Mental illness is something we don’t really talk about unless there’s a really visible suicide or attempt by a famous person,” Esther Rodriguez says. These stories are followed by a flurry of activity and information, but after the news cycle turns over, grief and trauma remain.

We All Fall Down is Rodriguez’s effort to keep the conversation going, and to bring it home for an intergenerational audience. A recent college graduate, she sees a shared understanding of mental health and a culture of support in her generation, while older generations seem to lack that level of comfort. “I wanted to give more of a voice to these kids who are reaching out and encountering resistance,” Rodriguez says, “not from a lack of desire to help” but from a culture of silence.

Unsettled: The Journey of Cheyenne and Mari

Written by Hannah Berk

This article was first published in Tagg Magazine here.

Cheyenne Adriano and Mari N’Timansieme were looking for a place where they could be themselves, and still be safe. That simple demand has led them on a journey that has bounced them back and forth across borders and entangled them in immigration bureaucracy for seven years and counting.

Gender-nonconforming from a young age, Mari grew up facing a barrage of abuse in Luanda, Angola. “I’m a target right away,” she says. “I don’t even have to open my mouth, they can just look at me…I couldn’t even leave my house without knowing I could be attacked.” In their time living together, Cheyenne and Mari never felt safe in their home. Neighbors cut their power and killed their dog; police joined in the swarm of street harassment that rose to meet them. The final straw came when one neighbor devoted himself to stalking the couple at all hours, threatening to burn their house down in the night. After years of dodging and withstanding attacks, they knew better than to disregard a threat against their lives.

When the couple first decided to leave Luanda in 2012, homosexual conduct was still criminalized under the country’s colonial penal code. Legal discrimination meant that Cheyenne and Mari bore abuse from family, neighbors, and strangers alike with no institutional support to turn to.

Cheyenne and Mari planned to build a life together in Cape Town. The only country on the continent to legalize same-sex marriage and home to significant anti-discrimination legislation, South Africa is a common destination for African LGBTQ asylum seekers. However, Cheyenne and Mari didn’t find the support they anticipated. The government had shut down Cape Town’s Refugee Reception Office shortly before their arrival, leaving asylum seekers to travel long distances to submit their applications. Unauthorized to work, living in a shelter, and with no discernible progress toward legal status, the couple returned to Luanda after two years and began planning their journey toward a new destination: the United States.

Arriving on student visas, the couple began a long immigration process they are still undergoing. It took them about six months just to get a hearing, another six months to get a work permit. While they waited, they struggled to stay afloat in San Francisco, consistently ranked the most expensive city to live in the U.S., and the one with the country’s widest wealth gap. But navigating the legal system took more than a financial toll. “The bureaucracy of seeking asylum is psychologically challenging,” Mari says. “You go to bed thinking, what if I have to go back? What’s my plan B?”

While heralded as a progressive hub and LGBTQ haven, San Francisco had its ups and downs for Cheyenne and Mari. They found that community didn’t come easy. “In our culture,” Mari explains, “it’s so easy to make friends. In the U.S., it’s different. People are so into that routine of exchange. They will network with you because they want something from you.” They’ve faced extra challenges as a result of their intersecting identities. “In our LGBT community,” Mari says, “there’s still racism, and there’s still xenophobia. We have been discriminated against for being Black, a foreigner. You’ll go to a job interview and when they realize you have an accent, they’ll find a reason not to hire you.” But there have been bright spots, too. In 2015, the couple married, after years of waiting for the chance. They have relocated to Las Vegas, where they work in the tech industry and are recording new songs; Cheyenne writes and sings under her artist name, KingCyborg, while Mari produces the music. And while they still hear comments in the streets, they felt more comfortable being themselves in public. “Whatever else,” says Mari, “that’s freedom.”

Cheyenne and Mari’s story, alongside those of Subhi Nahas from Syria and Junior Mayema from the Democratic Republic of Congo, is featured in the new documentary “Unsettled” from director Tom Shepard. The film follows the four asylum seekers and refugees as they arrive in San Francisco and work to build new lives. Cheyenne hopes the documentary will help audiences understand why people come to the U.S. to seek refuge, the great contributions they bring with them, and what they have to go through once they get here. “We want people to see what the immigration, the asylum process is really like,” she says. Screenings are scheduled across the country and internationally.

In January, the Angolan parliament voted to adopt a new penal code for the first time since the country gained independence in 1975. This code abandons the anti-LGBT provision, and bans discrimation based on sexual orientation. Carlos Fernandes, director of Iris Angola Association (Associação Íris Angola), says that it remains to be seen how it will be put into practice.

The first and only LGBTQ rights organization to be officially registered with the Angolan government, Iris Angola works in the areas of health, LGBTQ support and empowerment, and community education. Part of the problem, Fernandes says, is that “many people in this area don’t know what it is to be LGBT.” Even when knowledge is higher, people may be more tolerant in public, but “everything changes when you are at home. We face various problems as a result of the family. They are the first to discriminate against LGBT people in Angola.”

Mari describes the legislation as “definite progress.” “Right now,” she says, “LGBT people know there is a community where they can go for guidance and support…but it’s still not going to change society’s mindset. It takes decades—maybe centuries—to do that.”

Redefining Soft: Making Space for Masculine of Center Community Healing

by Hannah Berk

This article was first published by TAGG Magazine and can be read on that site here.

What happens when a community comes together to reclaim a word that has been weaponized against them? The two-day event Redefining Soft aims to offer an example that emphasizes healing and affirmation. Participants will challenge one another’s concept of softness and explore their own relationships to the word as masculine of center women (MOC), trans masculine, and gender non-conforming individuals.

Robin Williams created Redefining Soft in response to a series of conversations she found herself having MOC friends, acquaintances, and former partners who expressed a need for emotional support that was rarely afforded to them. “They felt targeted a lot when it came to being vulnerable or emotional as they weren’t given the space to express that with their femme-identifying partners,” Williams explains.

Realizing this kind of space was lacking even in her own relationships, she wanted to create one that would be openly accessible and would kickstart conversations that participants could carry forward with one another and with the people in their lives. Femme-identifying herself, she partnered with additional individuals and organizations such as BlackGirlMasculine and bklyn boihood to shape and facilitate the event in close partnership with members of the community Redefining Soft serves.

Now in its second annual iteration, the event is making its Washington, D.C. debut August 17-18. Participants will be offered an array of avenues for reflection and self-expression. The agenda includes creative writing and journaling exercises, guided meditation, Reiki healing, a visual art workshop, and a panel discussion on sex and relationships. Throughout, participants will have the chance to process in pairs, small groups, and large gatherings, as well as individually. A meet and greet happy hour is also included on August 17 at XX+ Crostino.

Building community, says Williams, is a central purpose of Redefining Soft. “One thing that I love about the events so far is that people have left with new friendships and new bonds and things said out loud that they’ve never said before.

The event has grown in numbers and in sponsorship since its inaugural convening in New York last year, and Williams has big plans for the future. She is partnering with LGBTQ financial literacy specialist Kenneth Davis to establish a non-profit, a step that would allow greater expansion and sustainability.

Whatever its scale, the goals of Redefining Soft remain the same: reclaiming the power of softness, building community among MOC folks, and sparking conversations that will open up new depths of interpersonal understanding beyond the weekend.

“It’s my goal that, if nothing else, people walk away from the event asking themselves and the people in their relationships tougher questions, and actually holding space for the answers,” Williams explains. The reflective weekend is designed to support participants in discovering and defining for themselves the power that lies in vulnerability.

The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, Brecht’s warning about fascism at Scena Theatre

by Hannah Berk

This article was first published by DC Theatre Scene and can be read on their website here.

Bertolt Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui (trans. George Tabori) presents us with a familiar story: a churlish Chicago mobster slashes and wheedles his way to the top. This time, it’s the top of the city’s cauliflower game. In case that doesn’t ring a bell, Scena Theatre’s production offers up Brecht’s suggested projections, orienting us within the Weimar Republic and Nazi Germany.

Each scene and its players has a direct parallel to historical events and people, and the play has an anti-fascist message to hammer home. The show is high-energy, builds a cinematic gangster world, and has moments of resonance, even if the parable lacks a nuanced consideration of fascism’s horrors.

Brecht wrote this play in 1941 after going into exile from Germany upon Hitler’s rise to power. He envisioned it for an American audience, but its first staging would actually be a posthumous one in 1958 Berlin.

It opens with a vaudevillian summary in which the ensemble lays out the plot, its major players, and establishes the play’s breakneck dialogic speed. We then meet Ui, Brecht’s Hitler analog, played by Robert Sheire as equal parts glory-hungry and insecure. He whines about his reputation, sports an ill-fitting get-up, and needs his henchmen to explain how corruption works, and yet he shrewdly pinpoints his opponents’ weaknesses and evinces a ruthless pragmatism: “When guns are silent,” he proclaims, “so’s the press!”

Ui and his gang wrest control of the Cauliflower Trust from Dogsborough (Joe Palka), a well-respected local politician tied up in some embezzlement schemes. Palka gives a mournful, conflicted performance of a man whose ethics never quite win out over self-interest. Looking out the window of his country house, he muses, “The lake looks just like silver before it’s been beaten into a dollar piece.” Dogsborough is just the first in a long line of people and institutions Ui bulldozes through on his way to power, including the justice system, despite the protests of an astounded defense attorney (Caroline Johnson).

No one seems especially drawn to Ui, other than his loyal friend Roma (Lee Ordeman); his rise is best explained by a critical mass of people choosing the path of least resistance.

This is in part a satire, and the show mostly strikes a good balance between its dark subject matter and sardonic tone. It plays up the absurdity of Ui’s insistence that grocers are in great danger (a danger he has independently and intentionally generated), and the dissonance between his self-righteous grandeur and his apparent petulance is a frequent punchline. A highlight of the show is the scene in which Ui solicits elocution coaching from a classical Shakespearian actor (director Robert McNamara). He learns to strut, gesture, and orate with excess pomp. Sheire exaggerates the awkwardness to comedic effect as his Ui gains confidence.

This moment is punctuated by an intermission and an overall tonal shift in a darker direction; sound designer Denise Rose fills the pause with an eerie mix of “Puttin’ on the Ritz.” In the second act, Ui edges closer to a Richard III archetype; he is decreasingly funny, more paranoid, and quicker to kill. A sort of emotional climax to the play is his decision to have Roma executed on wrongful suspicion of disloyalty. In one of the most effective scenes, his ghost visits Ui’s dreams. Lighting designer Johnathan Alexander bathes the stage in hellish red as Ordeman tumbles, contorts, and torments the sleeping dictator.

The play is sometimes a little heavy-handed in its moralism (see the projection over a courtroom scene that reads, “Mockery of Justice”), and sometimes not hard-hitting enough. Since Brecht was writing about the ascent of Hitler more than his rule, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui is absent the extremities of fascist violence. Ui’s avarice is dark, but doesn’t plumb the hatred that allows a genocide to take place, and there is no treatment of either complicity or resistance beyond a blanket assumption of human cowardice.

At a time when we are arguing over what to term the concentration camps popping up along the southern U.S. border and the real-life parallels to historical atrocities proliferate, it can feel counter-productive to toy with fatalism.

The few who make an effort to stand up to Ui are minor characters and almost immediately bend or are dispensed with. The apathetic grocers, stand-ins for the working people writ large, see through him but don’t think about organizing against him beyond throwing up their hands (literally) and imagining themselves defenseless in the face of his gang’s guns. The final tableau, Ui with one arm raised in a heil, surrounded by tentative grocers imitating the motion, strikes a chilling note. Breaking from the group, Sheire delivers Brecht’s famous concluding warning about the fascist regimes brewing as we speak. What are we going to do about it? If Ui’s rise is indeed “resistible,” it’s up to the audience to figure out how that might be.

Antigonick and The Fragments of Sappho from Taffety Punk

by Hannah Berk

This article was first published by DC Theatre Scene and can be read on their site here.

“How to translate [Antigone]?”, Anne Carson self-reflexes in her translator’s note to the Sophokles classic. “I take inspiration from John Cage who, when asked / how he composed 4’33”, answered / ‘I built it up gradually out of many small pieces of silence.’” I begin with the translator because Taffety Punk’s double feature of Antigonick and The Fragments of Sappho is very much a Carson showcase, replete with her stark lyricism and weird maneuverings among epochs and tones to shape an otherworld of her own.

The two texts both center defiantly femme energies and ancient Greek authors born a century or two apart. To move from Sappho to Antigonick is to move from motifs of silence to those of silencings. In dance, music, and language, these productions explore capacious absences, fashioning from them an always provocative space.

First up is The Fragments of Sappho, a hybrid performance of poetry through dance, music, and recitation, the brainchild of choreographer Katie C. Sopoci Drake and director Marcus Kyd. Sappho was a Greek lyric poet born in the 6th century BCE whose influence has loomed large across time. Only one poem survives in full—it kickstarts the show—and the rest in degrees of fragmentation, printed on weathered papyrus scrolls without line breaks. In Carson’s If Not, Winter, the inspiration text for this piece, she presents the complete remnants of Sappho’s work, including stand-alone words, and uses single brackets to denote missing or illegible text.

In Sopoci Drake’s choreography, a troupe of dancers arch into parentheses and bend into brackets, leaping and contorting around what’s left unsaid. One of the piece’s greatest contributions is its embodiment of translation’s labor, so often rendered invisible. As the dancers lift and carry one another across the stage, we see the work of arranging, supplanting, and conveying language—from thought to page and from one language to another—made manifest. Using only drums, a bass, and a singer’s voice, the original music composed by Dan Crane, Marcus Kyd, and Kelsey Mesa echoes the simultaneous spareness and throbbing fullness of the fragments.

In exploring absence, space, and process, the piece is deft and beautiful. In portraying the poetry’s content, it is somewhat less nuanced. Sappho is most famous for her love poems, often written to other women. All femme-presenting, the dancers’ movements portray the longing and sensuousness of the poems with outstretched limbs and fleeting intertwinings. Sappho’s desire is present, but the intimacy and gratification much of her poetry manifests is missing; the dancers never make eye contact, and the recitations tend to affect a mournful tone. While effective on the terms of this choice, there is a missed opportunity for celebration and queer joy.

Antigonick, too, is interested in excavating its own creation process. This production begins when Antigone (Lilian Oben) steps out from behind a translucent red curtain as she responds to a voiceover of Carson’s translator’s note. Silently, she struts, scoffs, and eyerolls at the interpretations her translator catalogues, aware from the beginning that her signification is historical and up for debate. While the play is an update to the classic, its goal is not modernization or accessibility so much as it is a marrow-ward winnowing; its primary concern is in embodying the experience of grief, loss, and power relations.

The narrative bones are all in place in this retelling. Antigone and her sister, Ismene, are mourning the loss of their two brothers, killed in a battle against each other over legitimate rule of the kingdom. Kreon, their uncle, has just assumed the throne and decreed that the body of Polyneikes, the brother he blames for the bloodshed, will be left to decay in the desert without burial rites. Declaring that justice must supercede the law, Antigone buries her brother anyway and is caught. Kreon, enraged at her defiance of his newly minted authority, orders her buried alive, and tragedy begets tragedy as Kreon’s son and wife unravel, their suicides leaving him alone to suffer the consequences of his folly.

In Carson’s raw translation, the wounds of the play open up. The Chorus (comprising Danny Puente Cackley, Louis E. Davis, Rachel Felstein, and Teresa Spencer, and led by Esther Williamson) sings out, “[ruin] comes rolling the black night salt up from the ocean floor / and all your thrashed coasts groan.” The poetry is reason enough to see the play. But far from locked into one note, the production teases out comedy, too. Dan Crane plays Kreon as an absurdist, grandiose and pedantic. He announces his own entrance on stage and, when Antigone requests an expedited punishment, retorts, “no let’s split hairs a while longer.” Eurydike (Teresa Spencer), who delivers a show-stopping monologue conspicuously absent from Sophokles’ original, is at once madcap and tragic as she relates her niece’s troubled youth: “try to unclench / we said to her / she never did / we got her the bike / we got a therapist…”

Lilian Oben’s Antigone is complex and wildly compelling, mad with grief and yet grounded in a logic of love and justice on her own terms. Oben allows Antigone to be young, vulnerable, and afraid without wavering in her strength and conviction. Her casting as one of only two black actors in the production forefronts the unequal distribution of punishment in the play. Ismene (Teresa Spencer) also confesses to Antigone’s crime in supposed solidarity, but goes free; Kreon is concerned only with silencing “the loud one” between the two sisters.

And then there’s Nick (Katie Murphy), who never leaves the stage and, in accordance with the text’s only stage directions for the character, “measures things.” Without spoiling the surprising effects of this presence, suffice it to say that Murphy’s realization of the ambiguous figure is smart and evocative, and reminds us always that AntigonickAntigone, and Antigone exist within a function of time—however we may define or experience it.

The Fragments of Sappho and Antigonick both study silence and all its possibilities. They lead us elsewhere, toward a voice, but what it says is ultimately up to us; we’re the latest in a centuries-long line of audiences interpreting these women. Taffety Punk is doing us a service in inviting us into these beautifully (re)imagined translations to inhabit and reshape the spaces they create.

The Dupont Under(world): The passages between life and death await you

by Hannah Berk

This article was first published by DC Theatre Scene and can be found on their site here.

Tradition Be Damned (TBD) Immersive, DC’s first large-scale immersive theater company, isn’t interested in designing shows for audiences to watch. They want to create worlds for participants to explore, with the stated goal of generating “new opportunities for empathy and engagement.” Immersive theater offers exciting avenues for blurring the lines between reality and fiction, between creator and consumer.

Risk is also inherent. It is easy for experiments to turn into gimmicks, and such shows walk a tremulous line in providing sufficient guidance for participants to understand and embrace the world they are entering while still allowing us to freely interact with and alter that world. The Dupont Under(World), TBD Immersive’s most recent venture, is an entertaining introduction to this innovative genre, but leaves something to be desired at its emotional core.

Under(World) shows are limited to 10 participants at a time, 5 of whom are assigned to travel from life to death, while the others travel from death to life. (I traveled from death to life, and so this review will focus on that half of the experience.) The setting is the Dupont Underground, a tunnel-turned-art space that lends itself to the show’s construction as a journey. Participant souls are met at the underground entrances by a guide who leads them through a series of rooms in which participants complete tasks or engage in experiences that theoretically prepare them for their transition into life or death.

Although the graphic murals and association with gallery openings and trendy shows makes the Dupont Underground seem a little too cool to be a purgatory, TBD Immersive works impressively within the space. Highlights include an ethereal soundscape crafted by Rikki Fromahder, the regal presence of the life guide (Keenan Gibson), and imaginative costumes designed by Deborah Lash and Colleen Parker.

At every turn, Under(World) is interactive; actors ask questions of the souls, guide them through small activities, and offer up elements of the set to be touched and manipulated. It is important to enter the show ready to suspend disbelief and be a willing participant. Nonetheless, interactivity is not the same as immersion. I felt some uncertainty surrounding participants’ roles on the life journey, which kept one of my feet planted firmly outside the underworld throughout. As spirits traveling out from a collective unconsciousness, we are told that we may have only fuzzy memories of the world above and of our previous incarnations. Are we supposed to be playing memory-washed characters, or should we bring our real experiences to bear? Unfortunately, this question goes almost entirely unexplored. While the experience feels somewhat personalized through conversational elements, the choices participants are asked to make are limited and appear to have no substantive effect on the development of the show.

By taking on the weighty subject of life and death, Under(World) establishes an expectation of conceptual experimentation and emotional gravity. The tone of the play is serious, but not reflective. Most welcome, there is no pontification about the meaning of life and death. Producing Artistic Director Strother Gaines explains that the show tries “to guide audience members to use their own lives and experiences to fill in moments of meaning that are important to them rather than us tell them ‘this is how you should feel about life!’” I am always grateful to have unanswered questions at the end of a show, but I wished that this one had raised more of them in the first place.

Most of the experiences participants engage in along the journey feel perfunctory or playful to the point of slight. Even the show’s climax of sorts, in which the life and death tracks cross and souls on opposite paths meet, has an air of empty ceremony rather than sacred ritual. Only the final room along the journey (which, for those traveling the alternate track, constitutes the first) resonated with me. I won’t spoil its surprise, but its success lies in making space for a private moment that grapples with grief, fear, and uncertainty. This room is a glimpse into what Under(World), devised with greater space for silence and mystery, could be.

TBD Immersive clearly comprises a talented, dedicated team. Working in Dupont Underground with its spatial restrictions and electrical oddities must be a major challenge; the sets are smartly designed and visually appealing; the actors are skilled improvisers. Immersive theater is a great way to involve audiences in the artistic and interpretive leaps a play requires, and to democratize the world-making function of theater. I am a newcomer to their productions, though they’ve been at work for the past three years; I can’t wait to see what they do next. I only wish that Under(World) took fuller advantage of the resources at its disposal and the formal possibilities. A show that takes us deep into the belly of the city should also guide us beyond the surface of its subject matter.

Siwayul (Heart of a Womxn), an act of reclamation for indigenous trans people

This article was first published in DC Theatre Scene here.

“Our work is ceremony, because, to us, art is ceremony,” writes Alexa Elizabeth Rodriguez in her Director’s Note. This is the experience of Siwayul (Heart of a Womxn): the audience is witness to and participant in a ceremony of remembrance and healing. We travel an emotional arc more than an imposed narrative one, moving through sorrow, anger, joy, defiance.

As the stage lights go up, House Manager Kariwase Duprey welcomes us, acknowledges our presence on ancestral Piscataway land, and reads out a list of names: that of every trans womxn known to have been killed in the U.S. and internationally since the last Trans Day of Remembrance in November 2018. Less than five months have passed, and yet as Duprey reads, it seems the list will never end. Such names, if we ever hear of them, are swallowed up by the news cycle in no time flat. This production—this ceremony—rejects that erasure: these women are called in as ancestors, and made present in the play.

Our guide throughout the performance is one womxn, Xemiyulu Manibusan Tapepechul (who goes by Xemi), the playwright and sole actor, playing every character with transfixing range. At the center is Alex, a young Two-Spirit from the country known internationally as El Salvador who is on a journey of self-discovery and self-acceptance. Through Alex, Xemi tells the story of doubled dispossession that many Two-Spirits face: when the spotlight is on trans issues, it usually excludes Indigenous people. When the spotlight is on Indigenous people, it usually excludes trans womxn. Alex jealously watches cis Salvadorans from afar as they access and learn from Indigenous elders, knowing she would not be safe at home; at the same time, she kneels in memorial and mourning of her trans sisters killed in the U.S., knowing her new home is no haven.

If the story Alex has been handed by the binaried, white supremacist world is one of dispossession, this hour-long tour de force is an act of reclamation. After Alex reads off scholarly proclamations about how Náhuat, her ancestral language, is purportedly “dying,” she sits down in defiance to teach herself her tongue. The text available to her, however, cannot be trusted; when it tells her “siwayul,” a compound word meaning “heart of a woman,” refers to a gay man, she questions who the authors empowered to define the word are. We can imagine: they are cis, heteronormative, and embedded in colonial machinery. “It is my living language,” Alex declares, wrapping herself in the word as a trans femme.

As befits a play that deals with the weight of history and the multiplicity of identity, Siwayul: Heart of a Womxn features a range of voices. Behind an array of colorful masks created by Ahanu On, Xemi embodies the ancestors to whom Alex turns for guidance: Siwayul, the Two-Spirit deity; Siwanawal, the skull-masked figure of La Llorona, a folkloric symbol of death, misfortune, and Indigenous oppression; and Nantzin Paula, a poet and musician in the Náhuat language. Xemi’s transformations are completed by simple, effective accessories designed by Angel Garcia.

Siwayul: Heart of a Womxn, now in its third iteration at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop after a 2017 debut at the DC Queer Theatre Festival and a second run last year, is based on Xemi’s first poetry collection, Metzali: Siwayul Shitajkwilu. The play’s language is rich, textured, and intimate. Xemi is an impressive performer, capable of moving seamlessly from Nantzin Paula’s peaceful meditation on communion with the Earth, delivered in a mix of Spanish and Náhuat, to a poem in which Alex, towering above the audience on a pedestal, demands reparations for Two-Spirits directly from the audience.

Xemi’s words disrupt complacency through rage and despair, but also joy and contentment. “The ancestors spoke to me,” Alex cries out early on. “They told me I am beautiful. That I’m exactly who I’m supposed to be.” The play is presented by Nelwat Ishkamewe (meaning Indigenous Root), a Two-Spirit (Native American transgender, intersex, asexual, queer+) collective that Xemi described in a talkback as producing “professional community theater”; she also serves as the group’s Artistic Director. It is rare to see stories centered on the stories of black and brown trans femmes.

What a precious gift to see those stories claim their rightful place in the spotlight, designed and produced at every level by the only people qualified to tell such stories well: the womxn who have lived them.