Joanna Pearce tackles transgender rights and the difficult journey to acceptance in a moving and authentic performance in Testostrogen.
Before her transition, playwright Joanna Pearce used to be Tony, a boat builder and all-round ‘man’s man’ who sailed around the world with his family. Now, she captains us on a remarkable voyage in Testostrogen, a play based on her own journey from male to female.
Pearce places us first in the living room of Pam and Steve, a Kiwi couple going through some of the turbulence that many a marriage no doubt experiences at a certain stage of its evolution. Pam (an excellent performance by Narelle Jackson in her first play) is a politician, away from home for extended periods. Fifty-something husband Steve (played by Pearce) understandably gets lonely and is also battling physical problems. When a sex-hungry Pam tries to ignite intimacy, he can’t rise to the occasion, so to speak. Pam is a no-nonsense sort, a forthright and successful career woman who is clearly used to efficiency in all things, so Steve’s inability to satisfy her demands when she sweeps in the door for the weekend is hugely frustrating for her. She just wants him fixed. But unknown to her, there is something else going on…
At one side of the stage we see a table with a few wigs, makeup, brushes. It’s Steve’s hidden stash; his transformation station. When Pam leaves for the week, Steve goes into her wardrobe and tries on her clothes. You’d think watching someone shimmying into a dress with difficulty and choosing the right shade of lippy, with little dialogue, wouldn’t make for great theatre. But this mesmerises. We know about cross-dressers, we’ve seen them, but we don’t know the mechanics, or the psychological forces that make a ‘full-blooded’ male – as Steve is described – fondle lingerie and experiment with mascara. It’s a naughty secret, and we are in on it.
A particularly cute moment is when Steve – morphing before our eyes into ‘Stephanie’ – gives us a lesson on how to apply nail polish. At this moment, despite his rather rough-and-ready female appearance, he’s just a girl eager to pass on his newly acquired beauty savvy. At this point, he himself doesn’t know what is going on, why he has this urge to embody a woman, but he fully embraces it and gleefully steps into character. (We later discover, as Steve himself discovers, that he has gender dysphoria, a condition where a person experiences discomfort or distress because there's a mismatch between their biological sex and gender identity).
Of course, it’s not long before Pam finds out. A priceless moment occurs when she comes home on a ‘surprise’ weekend visit to find Stephanie in full frock and heels.; Jackson conveys Pam’s spin-drier of emotions beautifully. First the shock, then the comedic indignation, ‘so that’s why my clothes are stretched! I just thought you’d mucked up doing the laundry!!’, then anger at the deception. There’s a beautifully snarky line delivered by Stephanie after Pam explodes ‘you don’t even look good!’ – Stephanie turns to the audience and mutters ‘bitch’. Then, in typical style, Pam briskly demands that this be ‘fixed’. Steve has to see a counsellor, she declares.
Then the journey takes several twists and turns. Pam helps Steve to go shopping so he can look like a classy female rather than a caricature of one. Only at home, mind; her political career would be ruined, she says, were he to take Stephanie out. Her showing him how to dress and put on make-up like a woman, not a drag queen, is sweet and tender, and you think she is going along with this. But as time elapses and it becomes clear Stephanie isn’t just a midlife-crisis in a frock, Pam can take it no longer. ‘I miss Steve!’ she cries down the phone. This acknowledgement of the pain to others when someone replaces their old self with a different persona, is deeply touching and compassionate. You see the situation from both sides. Even amid Steve’s euphoria at being free to be Stephanie once his secret is out, you feel his sadness. He clearly loves Pam and isn’t doing this to hurt her. He simply has no choice. There’s a particularly moving line, as Pam is ranting and screaming at Steve, where he hits back: ‘I was trying to be you while you were away. I was lonely.’
From here, we see Stephanie both flourishing as a woman, and also navigating the many obstacles to acceptance. First his own acceptance that this is no longer just dress-up; he wants to fully transition. Stephanie’s boss, ‘liberal-minded’ Rachel (also played by Jackson), wants to do all she can to help her come out at work. She sees Steve/Stephanie first and foremost as a valuable employee; to her the transition should make no difference. There is a moment of theatre brilliance when Rachel introduces Stephanie to the workforce as their first trans employee. What will their reaction be? Together Stephanie and Rachel invite questions from the workforce – and suddenly that’s us, the audience. The reaction is our responsibility. We’re invited to ask anything we want of Stephanie (and Joanna Pearce herself). There’s a pause as we take this in, then one by one the hands go up: “do you fancy men?”, “did you dress up as a girl as a child?”, “how do you feel about Steve now?”, “do you have any regrets?” “does it go the other way? Do women ever want to become men?”. It’s a wonderful moment, Pearce exposed and honest in front of us with Jackson staunchly at her side.
The fact Steve/Stephanie is played by Pearce herself adds an extra dimension; this is not just acting we are witnessing, but someone reliving her own transition. It’s a performance authentic to its core, and her willingness to be vulnerable and generous in sharing all the details, from the deeply personal to the cosmetic (in the early stages, two pairs of knickers to hide any bulges) is humbling indeed.
Spoiler alert… the play has a highly satisfactory ending, and you want to leap onto your chair and cheer as Stephanie is not only accepted, but triumphant.
So too has Joanna Pearce triumphed. A play about trans rights and the difficult journey to acceptance, both by herself and society, could have been preachy, dry, alienating, or voyeuristic in a salacious way. It was none of those things – indeed quite the opposite. It was entertaining, moving, truthful, at times hilarious, and raw.
If Pearce’s aim was to display the courage, pain, joy, and the sense of liberation in becoming the person you truly feel to be inside – whether it’s occasional cross-dressing or full transformation – then she has succeeded. It’s a powerful message that strides into our consciousness, and our hearts, with lipstick on and head held high.
Joanna Pearce is fundraising to stage a season of Testostrogen at Auckland Pride 2020 and to take the show to Edinburgh Fringe and London for a season with Certain Blacks productions. See www.fabulosity.productions for more information.