Can girls have short hair that isn’t a hairstyle? Can boys try on tutus? In ways both overt and subtle, society often says they can’t, or at least, they shouldn’t.
Last month, a Virginia family pulled their 8-year-old out of her private Christian school after being told her dress and behavior weren’t feminine enough for her to fit in. But a new play for children, teenagers and adults offered by St. Louis’ Metro Theater Company tells kids they can wear and be whatever they want.
Metro's “Unsorted” premieres for public audiences Saturday at Wydown Elementary School in Clayton. Created as a play about gender differences, it’s now being touted as a production that says all differences are OK.
The commissioned work by New York playwright Wesley Middleton stars personified clothing or “Clothings,” as they’re called, including competitive Skirt and cozy Sweater. They resist being sorted into two different piles, as a character named Jacket demands they must.
Metro’s director of audience development Nancy Tonkins is already getting positive feedback through a year of workshop audiences. Tonkins told St. Louis Public Radio that the mother of a young girl told the theater company the play provided an epiphany for her child: that she could be “mixety,” a word coined by the playwright.
“Her mom said that she was excited to know that she could be ‘clompety boot stomping, pink and swirly, sweet and boss-like in chargey,’’ Tonkins said, using more of the whimsical language of the play.
‘Everyone Sees Their Own Story’
According to the American Psychoanalytic Association, gender non-conforming young people experience 26 anti-gay slurs every single day at school. Bullying based on gender perception can even lead to suicide.
“Unsorted” provides an easy, un-pressured vehicle for talking about this very serious topic, according to Metro’s artistic director Julia Flood. She describes the play as easily digestible “Dr. Seuss meets Alice in Wonderland meets Willie Wonka.”
“I think people are looking for ways to have those conversations that don’t threaten their world view,” Flood said. “It lets you sort of roam around the subject.”
The play provides conversational launching pad for people who fit into society’s norm, and for those who don’t.
“It helps in explaining what a family looks like when it doesn’t look like your family, and when your family doesn’t look like others,” Flood said.
As more and more people were brought in to view the play – including educators, social workers and psychologists – it became apparent that the beauty of “Unsorted” is that its messages apply to a wide variety of situations.
“Some see it as a play about gender and some are sure it’s about race or religion or power politics in the workforce, or any number of things,” Flood said. “Everyone sees their own story.”
“Unsorted” falls in line with a long tradition by Metro Theater of addressing controversial topics. In 1991, under the direction of former artistic director Carol North, the company presented “The Yellow Boat,” about the death of a child from AIDS. North was told at the time that the play might signal the end of the theater company but “The Yellow Boat” was staged at numerous schools, and Metro remained very much intact.
Last year, North expressed her concern about potential controversy around “Unsorted.” The early working title was “The Gender Project,” and initial promotional materials stressed the gender aspect. But recent promotions market a play about a wider range of topics that often make it difficult for people to fit in.
According to Metro staff, the shift resulted from the reactions of test audiences seeing a wider potential for the play. But development director David Warren acknowledged that broadening the message may ultimately result in more audiences seeing “Unsorted.”
“Does that help us find other gatekeepers to other communities that are also interested in race and other things? Sure,” Warren said.
Playwright Middleton is amazed at St. Louis’ overwhelming support for the idea of getting kids to think about gender. It’s a reaction that contradicts outside perception, she said.
“I tell people in New York and they’re like, ‘Really – what?’” Middleton said.
Implications for Transgender Community?
Metro Theater is set to present “Unsorted” at several other schools this spring before it begins a wider tour in the fall. UMSL is planning to include “Unsorted” in a Nov. 21 transgender conference.
Transgender teenager William Copeland saw the play in an early workshop. Born female, he met fierce resistance when he tried to act like the boy he always knew himself to be, even as a toddler. Supportive parents and an accommodating school system helped smooth his transition, as the St. Louis Beacon documented in his profile for its “Beyond the Gender Box” series.
Copeland, a Ladue High School senior who’s planning to head for Tulane in the fall, saw “Unsorted” in a 2013 workshop and applauded the play’s message of inclusion. But he said watching it when he was a young child would have only added to his confusion.
“The play opens" with the idea "that anyone can be a female, which is OK, but for me, I identify as male so it would have bothered me a lot,” Copeland said.
Growing up in a gender-binary society, he was all too clear on the rules.
“When I was younger, I worked really hard to present as masculine,” Copeland said. “I felt like any amount of femininity I showed was excuse for people to say, ‘Oh, you really are a girl.’”
Copeland said that, in reality, the notion of two separate genders is firmly entrenched in our world, and that talking about something else requires a delicate balance.
He said, "Obviously, you shouldn’t discriminate against anyone based on gender. But it’s a part of society and you can’t take that out.”
But “we are society,” Flood said. As such, we can work for change.
“That’s exactly why this play needs to happen,” Flood said. “We should send the message to young people that if they’re not 100 percent feminine or 100 percent masculine that there’s not something wrong with them.”
Sorting Through Gender and Queer Issues
“Unsorted” public performances
Where: Wydown Middle School, 6500 Wydown Blvd., 63105
When: 2 p.m., Saturday-Sunday, April 12-13
How much: $16/adult, $12/students, seniors
Tickets: Brown Paper Tickets
Information: Metro Theater website