Several months ago, I was very excited to hear that the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company had selected a show about “love and acceptance” featuring a trans woman of color as a character. The company originally asked some well known LGBTQ+ producers (not me) in town to put them in contact with actors who were also trans women of color. Several auditioned, including actors who are incredibly talented and have worked at houses as impressive and respected as Mixed Blood Theater and beyond.
So, imagine my shock when the cast list was released, and the role of a trans woman of color went to a cisgender woman. I was not alone in this shock. Actors I personally know were heartbroken to lose the role to a cis person. Claire Avitabile of 20% Theatre Company immediately began calling for accountability, and for accountability’s sake the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company released a statement insisting that they met with actors from the Twin Cities, Chicago, and New York, and that no trans performers were right for the role or could make the schedule work.
The statement did not ring true, as several auditionees announced on their personal social media pages that they had little to no conflicts during the slotted rehearsal period and were still passed over.
I am going to be very upfront about the fact that in the past I have admittedly cast cis actors in trans roles. I immediately stopped doing that when I got called in for doing so, however, instead of doubling down on my decision — like MJTC did. Furthermore, this was literally years ago, and I have not actually ever cast a cis person as a trans person in a show that did not also heavily feature trans actors. I bring this up to say that nobody is perfect. We all make mistakes when we are trying to be inclusive. Activism and advocacy are not a perfect art. Yet in 2017 we also know that creating work about trans people without their voice creates sloppy art at best and bigoted art in most cases. Not only that, but it silences the voices of a community that has led more social movements than not. We wouldn’t have a “gay rights movement” without trans women of color leading the riot at Stonewall, and many were heavily involved in the Civil Rights Movement of the ’60s as well. Yet we erase and bury those voices in present day. Trans women are killed or take their own lives at an alarming rate in part because of the opportunity and dignity we deny them. I know this company’s heart is in the right place, but when you’re called-in because there is a better way to approach things, you don’t get defensive and insist you did the right thing.
Even so, at the point of casting I already had my press tickets reserved. With my editor’s support, I decided to review the show as fairly and with as little pre-existing anger as possible. To ensure this fairness, I brought a straight, white male friend of mine (Twin Cities actor, producer, and playwright Andrew Rosdail) to the show with me, lest I be accused of being “too sensitive” on the issue of trans erasure. Upon arriving back at Andrew’s car after the show, before I could even ask “What did you think?” he blurts out “Has that playwright ever even met a trans person before?” That reaction sums up everything you need to know about We Are the Levinsons, but I am happy to explain further.
First though, a statement on reviewing in general: I do believe that my primary job is to lift up the voices and efforts of queer people and allies doing important artistic work. While no show is perfect, it is not often I find a show that angers or disgusts me. This is not because I am soft or because I “love everything,” but as an artist I think most artistic viewpoints and statements are valid. With that in mind, I legitimately wanted to be wrong about We Are the Levinsons. As a production I have way more critiques than positive things to say, but the actors (even those I do not believe should have been cast) do a great job. In spite of everything, there were jokes I laughed at and emotional moments that I smiled at and that was completely because of how talented these performers are. All of the characters were written as tired TV tropes and direction was aimless at best, but these performers really worked to pull a show together.
Beyond that, We Are the Levinsons is a mess of a script and production. From their press info, “Lil and Lenny Levinsons house is brimming with hummed tunes and bright chatter when their daughter Rosie makes a surprise homecoming for Lils birthday. Three weeks later, Lils sudden passing leaves Rosie miscast to fill her mothers shoes as she fights to rally the depressed Lenny and her rebellious daughter Sara. Through death, dysfunction and delusions, the Levinsons and their caregiver Grace, a transwoman hoping to start her own family, revel in the artifacts, rituals and humor that help us survive.”
Yet so much of the script’s action and development happens off stage. Entire relationships are changed without us being let in on a single moment of that. Entire scene changes exist for people to open or close curtains and I have no idea if this was writing or direction but it was overwhelmingly slow and painful to watch. Every single character, as I’ve mentioned, was written as a tired TV sit-com trope. Andrew described the family patriarch as “a less likable Archie Bunker”, and the rest isn’t much better. Not only do I severely question the casting in this show, which we will get to more of in a moment, but direction left much, much to be desired. Yesterday I detailed how well-detailed Belin’s work was in Prometheus Bound, and this show is the exact opposite of this precision. Nothing goes together. Transitions were clunky if I’m being generous. Repetitive lines (which normally I would completely forgive a world premiere play for) were not played in any unique way or for emphasis which would have saved those lines. Sightline issues and issues with exits and entrances abound. (If you love not being able to hear characters because they are turned at a weird angle for no reason, wow, do I have a show for you!)
You know what though? In the end, none of that even matters because the casting and writing of Grace, the transgender woman of color who only exists so the Levinson’s family patriarch can further his story are completely inexcusable in 2017 in the Twin Cities, Minnesota. Let’s start with the straight up racist notion that the caretaker that comes to take care of Lenny Levinson (really?) is THE character of color in the play. Black and Latino women have been relegated to nursing and servant roles in film, television, and stage since the American onset of each of them, and well before that in many other countries. If you really need this character to make your main character grow, why couldn’t it have been a friend of daughter Rosie’s from high school that she ran into at the grocery store? Or an ex of Rosie’s if we really need that conflict? Why couldn’t Grace be a neighbor that just moved in or someone who recently joined their social circle? There are nine hundred different, less racist ways this story could have been told besides making this, your one character of color, relegated to being a caretaker.
Grace is a transgender character, and you know how I know this other than the confusingly aggressive marketing to the queer community that the production did? SHE INTRODUCES HERSELF BY HER DEADNAME. When interviewing her for the caretaking job, Rosie says “What did your parents name you?” (What? Who words that question that way?) and Grace says a masculine name, and then declares that she is transgender. Contrast that to Mixed Blood’s Charm (which I still had concerns about and now am nostalgic for because of this play) where a transgender character is point blank asked what their name was before the transition. That character coolly and hilariously replied “No.” in response. That is the right way to express deadnames. You don’t. They are in fact, deadnames. I do not know a single trans person of any gender that would greet someone this way.
Here’s a summary of the rest of my problem’s with Grace’s story and portrayal:
1. At one point Lenny Levinson yells slurs at her and aggressively chases her around his living room. As of March 22, 2017, eight trans women had been killed in the United States in 2017 alone. No, scratch that. Eight trans women of color had been killed in the United States in 2017 alone. Watching someone violently chase a trans woman of color while yelling names at her is not “cute” or “funny”. It is not “character development”. It is violence. For a show that was inexplicably marketed to the LGBTQ+ community, they sure did not care about triggering them. I can count on one hand the number of trans people I know who have NOT been attacked in some form or fashion, and asking them to come to and support this show while taking no thought or care with this scene is an egregious error.
2. Grace, in retaliation of the above scene, yells a slur for Jewish people at Lenny. I have so many problems with this, including an artistic one where she turns around and says she’d never call someone names. My concerns are both for Jewish people watching and how they don’t need to completely unnecessarily hear that, and for the character of Grace who is surely not endeared to that audience in that moment.
3. Grace has no purpose except to make Lenny learn to not be transphobic (which is also conflated with being homophobic, because why not?) Klout tried to give her her own story but it is not even a full sub-plot. Nearly every scene is about how Lenny is terrible and Grace is endlessly forgiving until finally they love each other like family.
4. This show was marketed to the queer community. It was not solely marketed to this community, but I was contacted through my queer theatre company’s business e-mail looking for audience/support/etc. Most of my LGBTQ+ friends did know about it, even the one’s not artistically inclined themselves. Yet the only character that is LGBTQ+ doesn’t make her entrance until halfway through the play. When I review a show, I always ask myself who the audience is meant to be, and if this play is an good fit for that audience. While the LGBTQ+ community was not meant to be the sole audience, they were meant to be in attendance. That’s why I agreed to review it. This is absolutely not a good fit for or representation of that community.
Another thing I ask myself when reviewing a show, every single show, is “What is this showing trying to accomplish and does it accomplish that?” We Are the Levinsons is a story about grief and how complicated family relationships are even though that love is deeply and intensely there. It is a show about dealing with an aging parent or one going through learning to live with Dementia. That is in the summary, and that info is easy to find. Additionally though, the show was marketed as “presenting important societal issues” and being about “love and acceptance.” Those things are not present in this show. I don’t know if the error lies with marketing or with the production itself, but that does come back to the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company and what they tried to create versus what was in the script. There are still unforgivable mistakes in both the production and the script, and it wouldn’t have been a home run in any case. It would have been an infinitely better show with a transgender person in a role or assisting as assistant director, even, but the elements of trans erasure only serve to highlight what is an incredibly problematic play already from both an artistic and social perspective.
I hope that this company, which clearly has a lot of talent behind it on all fronts, will learn from the controversy of this production and create art that is inclusive of all genders and gender histories moving forward. The Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company does do important work most of the time, and I am happy to review for a show where all perspectives being featured in the show went into making the project itself. As for We Are the Levinsons, I would suggest looking elsewhere for the sparse laughs and few heartstrings that are pulled.
We Are the Levinsons performs until May 14th at the company’s space on Ford Parkway. Tickets are available here.