When playwright Daniel Pearle was a preschooler in the late 1980s, he was fascinated by a classic fairy-tale character dressed in pink.
“I did have a fondness for all things Cinderella,” Pearle said.
Pearle brings his childhood experiences to his play “A Kid Like Jake,” now on stage at The St. Louis Repertory Theatre.“Jake” is the story of two New York City parents, worried about their 4-year-old son’s dress-up play and whether he can get into the “right” kindergarten.
Pearle’s own parents were cool with his Cinderella worship. But that was back when mothers and fathers weren’t attuned to every nuance of their children’s development, he said. Today, there are so many experts, so much advice, so many earnest parents eager to do well by their children. Even acceptance can be a problem.
“There is an increasing effort to be more and more inclusive so we have more and more labels about what a child may or may not be,” Pearle said.
But there’s one label parents still recoil from.
“Everyone wants their kid to be special but no one wants their kid to be different,” Pearle said.
‘I just want people to be moved’
Metro Theater for children and adults recently staged a play around gender in which the message is carefully couched in terms of difference.
But is St. Louis ready for a play that comes out and says it’s about gender and children? Director Seth Gordon thinks so. But Gordon points out “Jake” also explores relationships and today’s culture.
“It’s also about marriage and parenting, and parents struggling to figure out what to do with this [child] — and that’s how life is,” Gordon said.
Alex Hanna, who plays the father, Greg, hopes audiences will come away with more questions. Leigh Williams, who plays Alex the mom, hopes people connect with the play.
“I just want people to be moved, if that’s not too grand a notion,” Williams said.
Family ‘far from typical’
Laurie Copeland of Creve Coeur can completely relate to Greg and Alex in the play. Her transgender son William was born looking like a girl. But even as a toddler, he began telling Copeland and her husband Ken that he was a boy. She remembers the very different ways she and her husband handled this news and the process, at first.
“If there’s a mother and a father in the family, the mother tends to do a lot of research early on, reaching out, going online, through books, friends, whatever it takes to educate herself,” Copeland said. “The man in this situation often seems to be more contemplative.”
It wasn’t easy on their marriage.
“It absolutely is hard on marriages especially if they don’t get to the same place in the end,” Copeland said. “At the time we were going through it, I felt, ‘If we don’t get on the same page, I don’t know how we can survive this.’”
Now they both fully support William’s transition. The St. Louis Beacon profiled the Copeland family in its 2013 series “Beyond the Gender Box.” William was 17 then. Now he’s almost 19, a freshman in college, enjoying his life away from home. That transition also has a tie to “A Kid Like Jake.”
In the play, Jake’s preschool teacher wants the parents to highlight his gender-variant play to enhance his chances of getting into a good kindergarten that’s seeking diversity in its students. William decided to lay it all on the line when he began applying to colleges.
“I was born Grace Elizabeth Copeland, the third child and first girl of an average Midwestern family but, as it turns out, this family was far from typical,” William’s college essay began.
William’s essay garnered him several scholarship offers and a full ride to Tulane University, where he’s pursuing a degree in business. “He’s very, very happy, lots of friends, he’s thrilled,” Copeland said.
Here’s the full text of William’s essay.
Follow Nancy Fowler on Twitter: @NancyFowlerSTL