When David Valdes Greenwood was workshopping The Mermaid Hour back in 2014 one piece of feedback he got was that the play would be “impossible to cast” because it was “too diverse.” The show centers on a 12-year-old transgender girl and features a very ethnically diverse cast.
But that didn’t deter Greenwood. “I want to make sure the diversity I see in life is represented on stage,” he said during a “getting to know” visit to Milagro Theatre in early March. His commitment to diversity hasn’t deterred theater companies, either. Later this month, Milagro will be staging the world premiere of The Mermaid Hour, along with three other companies, as part of the Rolling World Premiere Program of the National New Play Network.
Each year the Play Network puts on a showcase of selected unpublished scripts for its Rolling Premiere. Theater companies from all over the country attend, looking for new work to put onstage. If three or more companies decide to produce a show, NNPN provides financial support for the theaters to bring the playwrights to the theaters for some rehearsals and a night of the production. The plays must be produced within a 12-month period.
The Mermaid Hour first appeared in the Rolling World Premiere 2016 showcase. Borderlands Theater in Tucson, Arizona, opens the first run this week, opening March 15. Milagro follows on March 22. Mixed Blood Theatre, in Minneapolis, and Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte, in North Carolina, will produce the play as well.
For playwrights, getting a first showing of a play is hard. Getting a second showing can be harder. In this way the National New Play Network gives a boost to new plays, allowing more people to hear about them.
Writing about marginalized groups of people you don’t identify with can be a fraught endeavor. Greenwood worked hard to be thoughtful about these characters. He drew heavily on the experiences of friends who have a young transgender daughter, and found members of the trans community to give him feedback.
Trans representation has more visibility than ever before but theater, like cinema and television, still struggles with it, both in who tells these stories and who plays these characters. Just last month Triangle Productions received pushback from Portland’s trans community for failing to cast a trans actor in a show about Christine Jorgensen.
Greenwood thinks a lot about what identities are represented in American theater and who gets to represent them. He recently had a thoughtful piece posted on Howlround about the idea of “conscious casting,” using his experiences in working with the four theater companies producing The Mermaid Hour.
Citing a lack of “qualified” actors is a common defense from theaters and directors when complaints about whitewashing or casting cisgender actors as trans characters are raised. “If your first thought is ‘I can’t’,” says Greenwood, “Then you’ll never grow as an artist.”
That isn’t to say Greenwood thinks casting choices should be completely inflexible. “If you’re going to take away a group of people from appearing on your stage,” he says, “then you need to think about what that says.”
To Greenwood’s surprise, Borderlands in Tuscon changed the ethnicity of the Asian characters in The Mermaid Hour to Hispanic. After discussing the changes with the company he agreed that it would enrich the production for that community. Nearly half of Tuscon’s population identified as Hispanic or Latino in the 2010 census. For that production it worked, but Greenwood says he wouldn’t have agreed to that for a production in a larger, more diverse city. Portland’s production is cast as the play was written.
The one role he insisted must be cast according to his script was Vi, the 12-year old girl at the center of the story, insisting that the actor could not be a cisgender male and must identify as trans, genderqueer, or nonbinary.
Fortunately for Milagro director Sacha Reich, she discovered a new young actor who fit the bill perfectly, 15-year old Jaryn Lasentia. “We’re very similar in how we view the world,” Lasentia said of his character, adding with a laugh: “But I can’t really remember what it was like to be 12.”
“I wanted to be in this show because it felt so important to represent the young trans community,” said Lasentia. But he also finds it liberating to play someone who is so close to his own identity and is so self-assured.
To help make sure she and her cast were up to the task of tackling this subject Reich reached out to the TransActive Gender Center, a local nonprofit that provides services and resources to transgender and gender-diverse children and their families. In addition to meeting with members of the group, Reich and the actors who portray the parents of Vi attended support groups for parents of transgender children.
For Reich The Mermaid Hour was the right show at the right time. “Milagro has been the place for these kinds of exciting conversations that are driven by cultural experience,” she says. “Even in Portland you run against highly progressive parents that still can’t wrap their heads around the trans experience. It’s an opportunity to really expand our exposure, compassion, and empathy to understand these kids.”
The Mermaid Hour opens March 22 at Milagro Theatre and continues through April 14. Ticket and schedule information here.