Training as a ballet dancer gave writer Rita Bozi a sense of empathy with transgendered people — the subject of her new “performance adventure,” Be A Man.
“You spend your days comparing each others’ bodies in front of mirrors.... You pick your body apart. For dancers, it’s such a difficult thing when you feel you aren’t as perfect as someone else,” Bozi says, recalling her unsettling discovery that she had legs that looked like a boy’s.
It wasn’t until she left the world of ballet for modern dance that she started to heal, but even then, she says, a “conflict” still lived inside of her.
“The only way I could live peacefully with my body was to accept the masculine and feminine energies inside me and say, ‘I am both male and female,’” Bozi says.
About a decade ago, Bozi also portrayed Brandon Teena — a transgendered person who was raped and murdered in 1993 and who was the subject of the film Boys Don’t Cry — in a show in Vancouver.
These reflections on her own body and her experience playing Teena developed Bozi’s interest in — and compassion for — the transgendered community.
In Be A Man, Bozi created a character called Tommy, a transgendered musician — a female who identifies as male — who leaves his prairie hometown to come to Calgary.
He arrives in the city with no money, guitar in hand, and tries to establish a new identity as a man.
The project began when Bozi was asked to submit a short story to an anthology titled Stampede Noir: Dark Prose from the Greatest Show on Earth.
“I thought, ‘I’ve never written noir. What am I going to do?’” Bozi recalls. “Five minutes later, I saw this character called Tommy, a transgendered musician.... This story was just within my body.”
Be A Man, featuring singer-songwriter Jasmine Whenham as Tommy, takes place during the Calgary Stampede, something co-director Ken Cameron says is germane to the story because the Stampede provides a “hyper-genderized context,” featuring guys in their “macho” cowboy hats and girls in too-short skirts.
Bozi says when she first talked to Whenham about the role, Whenham revealed to her that she felt uncomfortable around transgendered women.
“She said she needed to do the part in order to better understand them,” Bozi says, adding that, after Whenham cut her hair and let her eyebrows grow for the role, she was mistaken for a man, even getting kicked out of a women’s washroom on one occasion. “She felt so humiliated. With that, it really hit home for her,” says Bozi.
Bozi describes Be A Man not as a play, but as a “performance adventure” that incorporates music and film.
“I wanted to take a short story and bring it to life in a stylized way,” she says.
Inspired by New York theatre company Temporary Distortion, Bozi staged Be A Man in such a way that cast members (including Stafford Perry and Genevieve Pare) don’t look at one another, but look straight ahead at the audience instead.
“I want to convey how little we really know about each other,” says Bozi, who also plays the narrator, interjecting her voice to move the story along.
Cinematographer Patrick McLaughlin and filmmaker Sandi Somers created the show’s video, and bluegrass musician Petunia composed the music.
In fact, during this summer’s Calgary Stampede, Whenham came down from Edmonton so McLaughlin could shoot her walking along the Elbow River, playing her guitar and attending a Stampede breakfast.
“The film reinforces the narrative,” says Cameron, adding that, unlike many theatre productions, video was part of the production design from Day 1.
Bozi says compassion was one of the things that motivated her to write Be A Man, and says she hopes audiences walk away with a sense of compassion — compassion for Tommy as well as the story’s other characters, including the drug dealer whose father commits suicide on his 16th birthday.
Bozi says Whenham’s mother attended Be A Man’s workshop performance in Banff and wept: “She told me, ‘This is such an important message. It hit home with what I went through raising Jasmine in a small town.’”