Photo by  Blythe M. Davis
Photo by Blythe M. Davis

Roughly every two years, 20% Theatre Company produces a series of monologues, short plays, and other performance art pieces about transgender and queer experiences, with a strong emphasis on trans voices called The Naked I. The company does an open call for submissions, and from that the pieces for the show are selected, paired with up-and-coming, mostly queer directors, and are cast (unless the submission came pre-cast) from auditions. It’s an incredibly important series artistically and speaks to LGBTQIAP+ audiences. The latter seems obvious, but I think what often gets overlooked when discussing The Naked I is the sheer volume of incredibly talented performers, writers, directors, and other artists from our community that are getting an opportunity.

What’s also overlooked sometimes is how this format allows experimentation to flourish. Many of the cast members don’t consider themselves actors, and there are poems in the show being performed by people who are actors not spoken word artists. This variation allows performers to stretch themselves artistically, but it also gives the pieces new life.

I’ve seen all but the very first Naked I, and this year had a few strange moments where poems and stories I knew by local artists where in the show, but were performed by someone new or rewritten slightly. After my initial adjustment took place, it was easy to develop a deeper and newfound appreciation for the pieces through those changes. As an artist myself, I live for this type of artistic innovation. I’m a pretty big 20% fan in general, but The Naked I continues to top my list of favorite shows each time they revamp it.

This year’s show, Self-Defined, mixed things up even more. The line-up included short films as well as its usual theater and spoken word pieces, and there was a fabulous pre-show led by performance art duo Gender Tender. I was nervous about some of the format changes, as well as the fact that not all of the material this go-around was brand new to me. I shouldn’t have been. I’ve mentioned how newly moved I was by pieces I already knew, and the changes to the format to include new styles of performance where wonderful.

Gender Tender’s pre-show “Chosen Family” was the right mix of evocative and amusement to get us warmed up for the show, and the films went right at the start of the acts so it didn’t feel strange at all. There was also a whole piece set to a very charming, catchy song by Cat Hammond, and overall I felt like this show really did a phenomenal job covering as many artistic mediums as possible without anything feeling shoehorned in. If I was a young artist in any medium wondering where to put my queer voice, I would have felt welcome and encouraged by The Naked I: Self-Defined.

Naked I also does a wonderful job including artists from various mediums, as well as those who don’t identify as performers at all. This does mean for those used to more traditional forms of theater, there are some volume and enunciation issues that might be troubling, as well as some minor line flubs throughout. To me, however, even as a reviewer, it is so much more important to see art that is taking chances and supporting artists and community members than it is to see a flawless show — especially in a show that doesn’t need to be flawless.

The primary interest in reviewing art for The Column is partially in the art itself, but more importantly in its relevance and importance to queer culture. It seems like almost a no-brainer to include The Naked I: Self-Defined in my series of reviews, but what this shows does for trans and queer voices is so important that I have trouble even verbalizing how important it is that The Column readers see this show.

This is probably the most inclusive Naked I to date; while transgender and genderqueer identities were as front and center as they should be for a show like this, those on the asexual spectrum, who are bisexual, who identify as fluid in either gender or sexual identity, or honestly fit almost anywhere on the queer spectrum will feel heard and welcome at this play. This is absolutely a show for those who aren’t used to aspects of their story being told. I was shocked, for example, as someone who lives with severe rheumatoid arthritis to see a piece discuss the difficult intersection of managing chronic pain while owning your sexuality. This is so rarely talked about that I haven’t even written about it myself for theater, and to call it validating is completely underscoring the power that seeing that piece gave me. Another conversation that is far too rare in our community is how gender identity can affect those with eating disorders and vice-versa. “I, The Dysmorphic Dysphoric” by Devin Taylor gives us that conversation and is so brutally honest and so flawlessly performed that it still haunts me hours after seeing it.

Two of my favorite pieces were pieces I knew the stories behind going into the show. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing Paul Nemeth perform his poem “Before the Negative” about being a male survivor of sexual assault a few times. It is beautifully and heartbreakingly written as is, so I was doubly impressed by the new life Jac Pau breathed into it. “Places!” by Esme Rodriguez talks about the isolation Esme feels as a genderqueer drag queen. I adore Esme in and out of face, and knew a lot of this story, but the voyeuristic setting of watching a performer put on face — something we’re not supposed to see anyway — while letting us in on their biggest insecurities and moments of weakness was a moment all too rare in art, a moment where we are completely aware we are both audience and participant, voyeur and confidante.

Also of note is Raising Owen: A Genderqueer Love Story, a film by Meg Brown, which completely stole my heart. Raising Owen is the real life story of a parent raising a genderqueer eight-year old. There’s a lot of really great stuff about the parent’s own identity and upbringing, but as JD Western states in the film: “It’s not about me. It’s about Owen.” JD is the parent we all wish we had growing up in this documentary, but Owen is the star as they move about their life fluidly and unabashedly accepting themselves just as they are, charming us all along the way.

It is almost overwhelming to look back at the previously silenced voices that receive a spotlight and their long overdue attention in this show, but it absolutely does not feel overwhelming to watch it. Nearly every piece is dripping so heavily with heart and humanity that I was surprised when I checked the time afterward to see that two and half hours had passed. I have seen all about one rendition of The Naked I, and Self-Defined is my favorite one to date. Anytime you have a show comprised of several different smaller shows of various mediums, there will be some spots you think are weaker, and some that stand above the rest in even a stellar show. The weaker moments in The Naked I: Self-Defined are not very weak by most people’s standards. Performances are endearing and earnest even when they are not “professional actors”. One of my two friends that I saw it with wondered if some of the headier pieces might err a little too academic for some audience (a mistake my own playwriting is as guilty of — if not more guilty of — on occasion), but after thinking over the pieces I really think anyone in the target audience will find those professorial moments well within the realms of reality for those characters.

The Naked I: Self-Defined is a very strong show, and I know firsthand how tricky it is to make this many pieces fit together effectively. The show is beautiful, and at times hilarious, and it is incredibly important because of the way art flourishes in this setting. It is incredibly important because of the depth and variation of trans and queer voices being honored. What is most important about The Naked I: Self-Defined to me though, is that this show is not only about queer people, but by queer people, and then it goes a step above by being FOR queer people. So much of what I see even as I seek out LGBTQIAP+ specific entertainment is clearly not actually meant for me and my chosen family, but to educate people about us. This at times feels like a noble effort, but feels dehumanizing at other times. Having a space and a play meant FOR the queer community is this show’s biggest strength, and the love and commitment to this community shines through in every moment.

The Naked I: Self-Defined is technically sold out for most of the run, but you should take go anyway if you’re interested in seeing it. People cancel, Intermedia will let let the company do standing room, and no-shows do happen. I saw what was technically a sold out show and there were several vacant seats, so I would recommend giving it a go. The show runs this coming Wednesday through Saturday at Intermedia Arts at 7:30 P.M.

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