In 2015, 20% Theatre Company’s produced The Pink Unicorn by Elise Forier Edie on a limited run basis. It’s a small, intimate show with a ton of wit and heart about a mom trying to come to terms with her child coming out as genderqueer and pansexual. The show did so well in the original run and has been so requested that it’s back and running at Open Eye Figure Theater through February 5th. I missed the original run, though it was on my “must see” list, so I was elated to see it up and running again, and am so happy I finally got to see it. The Pink Unicorn manages to avoid the pitfalls of most one-person shows, giving us a poignant, often heartbreaking and ultimately uplifting story about a mother trying her hardest to understand and evolve in a new world that she’s never had to encounter before.
Long known as innovators when it comes to LGBTQ+ theatre, The Pink Unicorn is a surprising turn for 20%. The show’s strength is in it’s simplicity and watches like a (needed, necessary) chance to slow down and take a break in a world that is moving so quickly and chaotically around us. While no one could have known what we would be facing as a society right now when this show was scheduled, this breather is almost eerily well-timed.
It is now when queer people are starting to give up talking to those less aware or informed about social justice. It is now that is seems like some people’s hearts will never open or change. It is also now that so many of us desperately need a quiet place to sit and hear a story. The job of queer art (and I would argue art at all) is to fill in those gaps, to provide insight and reflection, to inspire conversation, and, when needed, to allow us to just absorb. So while The Pink Unicorn in all of it’s quiet, one-person glory may be a surprising pick, it’s also a very smart one. As a play itself, in taking a more intimate, fly-on-the-wall look at the journey allies and loved ones go through, the play manages to strike all the right chords while presenting a straightforward mother-child love story. As we neared the end and emotions began running high for the character on stage (and the unseen characters that shape this world and story) it was hard to keep my professional reviewer hat on, as there were multiple points I wanted to bury my head in my hands and cry.
There’s a lot to unpack about The Pink Unicorn and the reasons it brings us to our feet for applause at the end. For starters, there’s the solid direction from emerging talent Meghan Gunderson. Gunderson’s own humor shines through in places that might otherwise drag, and it’s no small task to keep an audience engaged in one person for this long. Then there’s the marathon that solo actor Mykel Pennington runs in doing the show. Pennington always impresses on stage, but her performance in this show is another thing entirely. For almost 90 minutes Pennington carries us with her on an endless ocean of waves as emotions and circumstance come crashing down around the sole seen character, Pennington’s Trisha Lee. Lee is a Christian widow in a conservative Texas town when her child, formerly Jolene, announces she is Jo, a pansexual and genderqueer student at a nearby high school where Jo is helping begin the school’s (and probably town’s) first Gay Straight Alliance. I don’t want to spoil a lot for you, because there are some fun surprises and the way Lee laughs off some of her pain and pulls us right into chest-shaking sobs for other parts of it is a hugely important part of the ride the show takes us on. In short though, the school denies the group’s club application, the ACLU gets involved, and all of this is while Lee is contending with bigotry at her church, her own mother turning on her, and the estrangement she chose with her alcoholic older brother, to name a few.
There were a couple of things in the script that I didn’t like that where hard to shake off. While character and world building are crucial parts of play making and storytelling, I do not think that in present day they are an excuse for language or conversation that would potentially hurt audience members. There is an uncomfortable amount of fat and body-shaming from Lee, and this is never resolved or re-addressed as she learns to become friends with people she never thought she would. Edie’s grasp on Southern colloquialisms and attitudes is absolutely rock solid, but that means these tactics seem unnecessary and often made Lee look harsher and meaner than I believe she is ever intended to be. There are a couple of phrases and statements that fall into “casual racism” as well, and it’s easy in the Midwest to chalk that up to “Southern people and their silly racism”, but that’s part of the problem. The intention is clearly world building. The impact though makes Lee look worse than she needs to and is, at best, potentially uncomfortable (and not for the right reasons) for some audience members. I don’t want to overemphasize these things, as they are relatively quick, minor incidents — but they are noticeable.
In spite of those aforementioned moments, The Pink Unicorn is absolutely important and absolutely wonderful. I took a very close friend who recognized some of her own family’s journey in the show, and I think many Column readers will note that as well. Furthermore, while the story is overwhelmingly about queerness, acceptance, and evolution, there is a profoundly universal message that I hope does not get overlooked by audiences. That message is that love, even without complications, is deeply painful and difficult, but in the end it is earth-shattering love that moves us and transforms us. This message smartly comes through in several different facets of the plot; when Lee discusses losing her husband, when she’s trying to be there for Jo even though she understands nothing about her kid’s new world, and even when she runs into her brother at a bar, to name a few. It’s every bit as important a message as the other themes in the play because of that transformational power love does have. The Pink Unicorn ultimately reminds us that getting out and getting real with people who love us is what will crack their hearts open.
Trisha Lee does not end the show a perfectly enlightened ally, but she does end the show the way she began it: by laughing through her tears, by loving as deeply (if not more so) as any human can, and by trying, over and over again until she gets something right. The Pink Unicorn will have an impact on you, and is a must see for any LGBTQ+ theatre fans or allies who grew up in small towns that were too big to hold the power and magnanimity we are capable of. I also highly recommend it to genderqueer people, pansexual people, their allies, and their loved ones if for the sheer fact that these identities are grossly underrepresented. The show is decidedly Trisha Lee’s story, but Jo is in every breathe and decision Lee makes, and that is beautiful and worth seeing in and of itself. The Pink Unicorn is as fun as the name suggests, so don’t be put off if you “don’t like one-person shows,” or if all my talk of themes and messages makes the show seem heavier than it actually watches as. This is a show about love, and queerness, and growth, but those topics are handled the way the should be: with all of the lightness and joy those things end up bringing when they manifest in our own lives.
The Pink Unicorn is at Open Eye Figure Theatre through February 5th. Tickets are $5-25 sliding scale and available here.