JULY 6, 2017 ILANA LUCAS
It’s My Penis and I’ll Cry If I Want To, written and produced by Jamie Black and playing at the Toronto Fringe Festival, isn’t particularly bawdy, as the title might suggest. Instead, it’s a sweet, earnest show about gender roles, far more Lesley Gore than Lady Gaga in tone (though the latter is what’s on the soundtrack). It’s charming and heartfelt, but feels oddly unfinished, a bit like the conversation about gender itself. Black, opening by taking the stage in an undershirt and briefs, tells the audience he has spent time both as a woman and as a man, so more than most he knows how truly convoluted and screwed up gender relations have been and continue to be. Via this presentation-style confession, I was initially convinced that this show was going to be purely autobiographical. Instead, it’s largely character-based, which means it may take a while to pick up the narrative thread, such as it is. To present a variety of views, Black uses a series of vignettes. To show off the broadest stereotypes, he first makes an amusing comparison between an aggressively male boot camp and a submissively female…beaut camp? Thankfully, it gets more nuanced from there. He then showcases three sets of characters, the pairs seemingly disconnected from each other. These heterosexual couples, who are at different stages in both their lives and their desires to gender-bend, show the male vs. the female perspectives on various gender-based issues, including who seduces whom who provides for whom, and who supports whom.
There’s the nervous male virgin who worries about his overweight conquest, and the woman herself who turns out to be the real conquistador; there’s the man who wants to embrace a more sensitive side and the woman who won’t let him, wishing instead that he’d focus on his provider role. Finally, there are the characters who are open and true to themselves, despite the bravery that might require. Black does a fine job of portraying both male and female characters. His particular strength is his embodiment of both Henry and Bea, an elderly couple who, unlike the rest of the cast of characters, have learned to be completely honest with each other. It’s here where the acting really shines and I felt myself slipping into the characters’ lives, less aware of the well-meant lecture lurking beneath. I actually would have loved to see more of them, perhaps in a fuller show. Black’s is a good voice to hear, with a strong message to listen to, despite the woes of a truly anarchic sound board (handled with grace and aplomb by all involved). The limited focus was also fairly narrow on the type of relationships being explored, but that’s probably smart; there is a ton to unpack about gender and sexuality, and no show can say it all. However, though everything was clearly on the same theme, I wish there had been more connective tissue between the sections, and perhaps something to wrap everything up at the end; it didn’t quite feel cohesive. This meant that both the experience and the message were less satisfying than they could have been. Running a little under 45 minutes, the show, like our perceptions of gender essentialism, still has plenty of room to play and grow.
Jamie Black has written a play about gender: the traditional ways we define them, the extremes thereof, and the toxic manifestations that result. The play has a lot of potential but as it stands it’s a bit choppy: the introduction gives us a bit of history about Black, but I wanted to hear more about his own struggle with gender. Instead he quickly moves into talking about the extreme stereotypes he grew up with, and then finally transitions for the bulk of the show into a series of monologues depicting three relationships from both the man’s side as well as the woman’s. Something that would make this production instantly better would be to use actual props for what he mimes – a deck of cards, a photo album, a cigarette. Those items would help ground each character’s monologue, and give the audience something concrete to associate with each beat of the story. Each character is fairly well developed (the men better than the women) and the performances could be a bit more polished, but Black’s natural charm and talent shine through and he so easy connects with the audience that I found myself in tears by the end of the show.
It’s My Penis and I’ll Cry If I Want To is a 45-minute one-man show exploring the nuances of gender, often humorously, always movingly and inextricably linked to the many characters portrayed by Jamie Black in this seasoned performance that has run for several years in the fringe circuit. Running at the Pride Arts Center through February 11, It’s My Penis and I’ll Cry If I Want To is a good way to melt away some of the grim realities of winter with a friend or two over a few introspective, gender-bending vignettes.
It is a real pleasure to watch Black seamlessly transition with ease between his male and female characters, magically embodying each person, each portrayed with sympathy and love for their quirks. Perhaps this gender fluidity Black expresses is only incidental to the plot, or perhaps it is a conscious choice to illustrate his point, that in emphasizing a gender binary, we have ripped apart the yin yang fabric of the universe. In only 45 minutes, we get to meet two college kids after a hook up, a married couple struggling with their roles, and an elderly dying man and his mourning widow.
We learn early on that Black is a trans man. In the first of several short scenes, Black outs himself by appearing in his underwear, feeling vulnerable, and confessing it. For a few minutes it appears as if the show will continue along these lines, as a series of confessional monologues about his paradoxical feeling of not being at home in a man’s world, or a woman’s. In perhaps unduly facile descriptions, Black explores how each stereotype limits his self-perception and makes him feel boxed in or as if he is not enough. Fortunately, Black quickly abandons the non-illusory monologue to explore his characters, and this is where Black is able to best make his point understood. The message is that foisting gender-specific behaviors and expectations on to a person is damaging to that person and their relationships. And also, women can be as badass and tough as men can be giving and soft. It’s not as if the message is revolutionary, but it is delivered with the spot-on renditions of relationship dynamics that ripple through the one-on-one connections he presents.
It is both unclear and possibly unimportant to know if Black’s skill at portraying his characters has something to do with his having experienced being both a female and a male in his lifetime, or more due to him being an excellent actor. Perhaps he wants that ambiguity to linger, just as he allows it to linger when he appears in his underwear and says he knows you are looking. Still, his powerful characterizations somehow bypass the opportunity to convey something specific about trans identity (and indeed intersectionality) independent of the binary male/female stereotypes. Black may have chosen this broader path in order to explore gender topics from a universal perspective, preferring to convey the pain of all human oexperience, not just trans hunans, when we enforce gender norms. In doing so, he will undoubtedly reach a wider audience, winning over more hearts with his repeated message that it’s okay for men to cry and show love. Sifting through power dynamics and various gender-flexible versus gender-rigid scenarios, Black is able to illustrate both how far we have come as a society on a case-by-case study of individuals and also how far we have yet to go—and most importantly just how personal that progress can be to each person’s happiness.
Shows are Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 pm/Sundays at 5 pm in The Buena, Pride Arts Center at 4147 N. Broadway. Tickets are priced at $25. Or call to reserve your ticket 800-737-0984
FROM NOLA DEFENDER
Despite a couple jitters, sole actor and director Jamie Black gives a star-studded performance all by himself in It’s My Penis, I’ll Cry If I Want To. Diving head first into a range of characters, Black successfully takes on the idea of gender as a spectrum and portrays the egregious elements of binary expectations. Ultimately, the play confronts human frailty and forces audience members to ask themselves when they’ve fallen victim to societal expectations.
Anyone who’s ever taken a college course would have the same fears upon entering the play, which promotes itself as a discussion of “men and women who don’t necessarily behave the way society says they should.” The description conjures up images of tired tropes, and no one wants to see a play about men guzzling beer in front of a television as their women tend house and exchange beauty secrets. The controversial aspects of gender and sexuality are no longer so black and white.
Black’s play begins with these trite representations, but only to acknowledge that they no longer exist as ideals. The transgendered director and performer uses the rest of his time on stage to delve into the more insidious forms of gender policing that persist into the 21st century.
First, viewers get some insights into the more nuanced elements of sexism and trans bias. Keeping the performance light and staying true to his characters, Black demonstrates that in one sense, gender nonconformists are more tied to stereotypes than people whose anatomies correspond to their assigned genders.
It’s not all about being trans. The crux of the play deals with human insecurities. Black lets the viewer into the life of a straight married couple. The husband has a conversation with a friend about his wife’s decision to divorce him.
The viewer sympathizes with both sides of the miscommunication—at first, the husband’s tales of being repeatedly called a “Bitch Ass,” for his inability to pay all the rent paint his wife as a monster. The issue becomes murkier once Black transitions into the wife’s character, unveiling a vulnerability that translates as venom. There is something universal in the couple’s frustration, the disconnect that breaks friendships, poisons marriages, and breeds resentment.
In terms of set, Black does a lot with a little. A couple of chairs and a table is all he needs for his subject matter, which depends entirely on his acting ability. The actor depends on the audience’s imagination for a lot of the performance, but he does his part to keep viewers' attention with convincing miming and realistic conversations. See It’s My Penis at the Shadowbox Theatre (2400 St. Claude Ave.) Nov. 16 at 11pm, Nov. 17 at 7pm, and Nov. 18 at 9pm. -M.D. Dupuy
At: Pride Films and Plays at Pride Arts Buena, 4147 N. Broadway. Tickets: $25.Runs through: Feb. 11
Don't be misled by the P-word. Even if our hero makes his entrance garbed only in his underwear ( plain white cotton jockeys, for those who care about such details ) to inform us that he used to be a woman, he has not come to talk about hormones or implants or rejecting one gender stereotype in order to embrace another. Instead, his goal is to question—having, he reminds us, viewed the arguments from both sides—why our culture makes it so difficult for men and women to be who they really are.
To establish a baseline, he first assumes the persona of a gravel-voiced drill-sergeant instructing young males in recall of athletic stats, the necessity for automotive expertise and "parking your tear ducts at the door." In contrast to this testosteronic caricature, Jamie Black next portrays a mid-20th-century housewife, serenely sequestered within marital/consumer/domestic spheres and armored in apron, ignorance and enigmatic smile.
The persistence of these restrictive roles is then illustrated in three scenarios, each recounted, Rashoman-style, from the divergent vantages of the participants, beginning with a shy fraternity pledge who frets over the trauma he may have inflicted upon the tomboyish "fat girl" ( "Not Biggest Loser fat, but more like Jenny Craig fat" ) assisting in his sexual initiation, little realizing that his poker-playing paramour compensates for her feminine shortcomings by means of the same seductive subterfuges employed by callous males.
More destructive consequences beset marriage partners concealing dissimilar expectations regarding emotional expression and privileged candor—a husband who "snaps" after years of verbal abuse is not afforded the same sympathy extended to a wife spurred to violence. An elderly couple forging an egalitarian relationship, however, find themselves at the end of long and happy lives secure in the satisfying knowledge that there wasn't any "unfinished business" between them.
Black appears determined to leave nothing unfinished or unsaid, either, punctuating his character portraits with homilies pointing us the way—"Be vulnerable!" "Be brave!" "Be you!" Stoic playgoers may be skeptical of attributing panaceic properties to a remedy as simple as a good cry or heart-to-heart, but there can be no denying our narrator's benevolent intent in promoting more fluid boundaries to individual gender identities.