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Natsu Onoda Power‘s latest iteration of The T Party, which she last staged with Forum Theatre in summer 2013, is different this time around, yet exactly the same—-much like the same person might put on heels, fishnets, and a wrap dress to go out to dinner one evening and schlub it to the gym in sweats and a snapback with a five o’clock shadow the next.
Written by Power and an ensemble of students in her 2008 gender and performance class at Georgetown University, The T Party‘s structure is as fluid as gender can be. With each production, the ensemble breathes life into the characters by improvising, adapting, and elaborating on the stories that made up the original run.
Now in its second run at Forum (its third overall), The T Party‘s scenes—-from Miss Nina Maiah‘s kindergarten classroom to the sweet grooving of bears, otters, and pandas at the Green Lantern—-traverse boundaries of age, gender, and sexuality. It both explains and asks questions about the histories of real D.C. LGBTQ people, which informed the play’s creation. Power spoke with Arts Desk about reinventing a play that stays true to its roots.
Arts Desk: How did you set up the class that conceptualized The T Party?
Power: It was with my gender and performance class, concurrently with the class [with which] I was also conducting research in town. Some of the contents came from class and some of the contents I wrote and put the people from the class in it. The non-binary sex education for kids scene, with Miss Nina Maiah (which was Ms. Carla in 2008)—-the first part of that came from the class. I gave them an assignment to design a lesson plan for non-binary sex-ed for kids. I gave each group a topic and a children’s book, a sex-education book for different grades, and they had each had to present it in a non-binary way.
How much artistic collaboration do you tend to give your ensemble?
I do it in a structured way. I bring a script, a skeleton of a script, or a prompt, and we sometimes improvise based on the script. Things that went well make it into the script, and things that don’t disappear. Like, for instance, the dolphin [sex] scene…it is adapted from a scholarly article, and the dance moves are devised by the ensemble. So there are terms—-mounting, seducing, socio-sexual petting—-and [the ensemble] improvise the choreography.
Do you come from an improvisational background?
I don’t, and I don’t like it. And I’m not good at that, and I respect anyone who can, because that is so great. I do it in a really structured way so people don’t have to come up with the structure. I know that a lot of actors feel uncomfortable with the kind of improv you have when you need to devise the structure. [I create] a smaller window for improv.
Does being a writer/director give you a lot of leeway, or is that a lot of pressure?
I feel like I’ve only done things this way…I’m starting to direct plays by other people, like Yellow Face at Theater J. And I directed another show at Studio [Theatre] in 2010 that was written by somebody else. And it’s a completely different experience; you learn so much.
It’s problem-solving in a different way. [Self-directing] takes some of the pressure off. If I change something in The T Party that doesn’t work in rehearsal, then I always have the option of changing the words. If it’s somebody else’s play, then I have to problem-solve it in a different way, which I also enjoy. T Party was really special because I’ve been working on it for so long, and many of the stories are real.
But some of the stories have changed since last time—-you’ve put a coda on each one. Who follows up on the stories?
I follow up, and I change the facts around a little bit to make everybody anonymous. Like, two people might merge into one character. Like for instance, the bar scene with the cross-dresser and her friend. I change the facts around and I add large personalities to make it more interesting.
Do you have any structural theatrical inspirations for the play?
It’s kind of my style to do episodic. Astro Boy was episodic; Darwin was episodic; this is episodic. I don’t trust myself as a writer to sustain a narrative for an hour and a half. That’s a talent I don’t have, and I admire people who can.
Does your work as a set designer at Imagination Stage, the Hub, and Synetic inform your work as a director?
Of course. I feel like I almost enter into it from design. My work is really visual, so sometimes I have the image of the stage first and then I will think of the words to go with it.
How has your academic experience informed your work?
Writing a play is a lot of research. I started writing it in 2007, so seven years of research went into it—-most intensely at the beginning, but I had to follow up.
What were you reading?
Lots of theory, of course, and I don’t want to put theory onstage. Lots of Judith Butler. One that I found really interesting was Undoing Gender; it’s more anecdotal. There’s a book called Normal by Amy Bloom, which is more a journalistic book about people who unsettle gender. So the first chapter of it is about heterosexual cross-dressers, which is in the play. At the time, in 2007, it was a new idea to most people that trans people aren’t gay, you know? That people’s desires to cross-dress or to live as their non-biological gender isn’t related to their sexuality.
Not queer women, I can tell you that.
Yeah, but, you know, most people have a limited experience—-they see drag queens on television. Even in queer communities, like you see in that scene [in The T Party] with the trans lady escort. She didn’t understand why [the character] wanted to cross-dress as a woman but was happily married [to a woman].
There’s that one scene where actress Allie Villarreal says, “When are you gonna stop talking about dicks?” or something of that sort. Has there been a strong effort to incorporate the FTM experience?
Leslie Feinberg was an inspiration. In 2007, I just happened upon these stories on transgender liberation, and I corresponded with him. He wrote to me, “Sexuality squirms in categories anyway. But without any room for gender expression, and other important factors in attraction, it doesn’t fit our lives at all.” And then he quoted John Lennon: ” “Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.”
There’s a little snippet at the end of the play. I would like to incorporate more stories, but I think it’s interesting—-one person characterized the FTM community as a quieter community just because of the biology of it. People pass really well, and why would you wanna live as a trans guy if you can just live as a guy?
I very strongly disagree with that but…
Well, just sometimes people want to just live, right? I’m not saying that, but this is what I heard, and it found itself into the play. And I will admit, I am very ignorant about issues and communities. I am doing this as a playwright, and am really conflicted and confused about everything, and I am constantly learning.
Did you interview people in the D.C. trans community?
You know what, I did. Most of these stories are from people in their 40s and 50s. Things are so rapidly changing. Their experiences are so radically different from people in your generation. They did not live in this empowered, activist era. They didn’t have a name for what they experienced, and it’s empowering to see and hear young people, but that doesn’t make the older generation’s struggles go away either. And young people struggle as well.
The T Party is showing at the Silver Spring Black Box through Jan. 17.
Top and bottom photos by Noe Todorovich Photography. Middle photo by Zac Gilbert.