The White Dress, my genre-bending gender queer coming of age play will receive a showcase in New York from November 2-5.
The work melds language, music, and movement to explore one Jonathan Howard’s journey to embrace himself as a pansexual, gender non-conforming person of color. The piece is being directed and co-choreographed by Adin Walker. Amongst our mutual loves and affiliations, Adin and I are Princeton alums, aficionados of queer drama, and theatre-makers with backgrounds in dance.
What’s been most interesting working with Adin has been the opportunity to think and write from an interdisciplinary place as a dramatist. Before I even re-wrote a word of the script, Adin shared with me dozens of podcasts, interviews, videos, and old-fashioned articles about gender and identity – many from the “I” perspective. Reading them, I was able to put faces and lived experiences to the ideas I was investigating through the play. In the end, reverence, patience, attention to detail, and empathy were some of the virtues reinforced in this re-write experience.
Now, The White Dress is in its final week of rehearsals. But before we fly into tech, I took some time to chat with Adin about the road to our New York debut.
Roger Q. Mason (RQM): What attracted you to this project?
Adin Walker (AW): I was first attracted to the project when I met you. Before I even read the script, you and I talked on the phone for a couple hours about art, our lives, queerness, our shared experience attending the same college – though our times there never overlapped – and training under some of the same teachers. I could feel your presence and warmth over the phone as if you were sitting beside me on my bed, rather than all the way on the other side of the country. Your values for theater-making and collaboration also really inspire me. In particular, your work embraces the liveness of theater, your work uplifts and spotlights the ensemble rather than a single and central figure, and you are an artist with a mission to bring people together in rooms to share, feel, and make activism-driven art.
RQM: Who are some of your inspirations for this piece – both as a director and co-choreographer?
AW: Every single person involved with this project has been an inspiration for this piece, and that has been very special. Pina Bausch, Solange Knowles, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, and Keone and Mari Madrid are a few of many artists who we look to for inspiration. We have also been listening to lots of the NANCY Podcast, re-reading Judith Butler, Nick Krieger, James Baldwin, and other writers and scholars.
RQM: One of the things that’s excited me about writing the play is the chance to have characters vocalize their stage directions. How are you working that element of the script into your production?
AW: Each rehearsal for each scene begins with the actors reading the scene and choosing which stage directions they want to say in that moment. They might explore saying the stage direction if they feel like it pertains to their actions, if the description of an action offers an unspoken layer to an exchange with another character, or if they think the stage action described in the stage directions is witnessed from their point of view and the witnessing of the action motivates them to continue to stay in the room and engage with the other character(s.) We then rigorously go through and decide what we want to try when we move onto our feet, and then we just keep learning and playing!
RQM: I’ve heard there’s a go go dancer and a DJ booth onstage. Please tell me more.
AW: Yes! The play is underscored by DJscapes – and I was interested in tapping into the heart beats of all the characters and how their heart beats sync, collide, and eventually move in different directions. Stanley Mathabane, who is playing Jon, is also professional DJ artist [SunSon] and it excited me to think about how Jon is intimately connected to music – that the DJscapes are grounded in his psychology and how he spins, mixes, and samples music is always coming from a place of emotional discovery and memory.
RQM: Why is it important for us to make queer theatre?
AW: I recently attended Diana Oh’s brilliant [my lingerie play] at Rattlestick, and the performance begins with audience members writing on paper bags their answers to the question: “why do you create a safer and more courageous world for us all?” And I feel that that mission – to “create a safer and more courageous world for us all” – and its framing question – why are we doing this – is at the heart of making work that is unapologetically queer. “Queer” is a powerful word – its meanings are vast and represent different things to different people. The word continues to take on meanings with each new movement and generation. To me, the power of “queer” rests in its insistence on political and cultural LGBTQ+ visibility: we’re here, we’re queer. Queer art exposes, interrogates, and disentangles the mechanisms of our politics – the signifiers that aid the world in making sense of our bodies – to therefore distill a story, a character, a corner of a universe to our core truths. And the word itself, “queer,” defies definition and parameters – everyone kinda has their own relationship to the word and what it signifies and sums up to that person. And I like to think that making queer art is about making art that cannot be defined…and in that space without the walls of definition, we can start to build that “safer and more courageous world for us all,” that Diana Oh so powerfully inscribed onto our little queer hearts.