The T Party

by John Stoltenberg

Originally posted on DCMetroTheaterArts.

Natsu Onoda Power’s delightfully devised theater piece The T Party could not have a more perfect home than Michael Dove’s quintessentially inclusive Forum Theatre. At Forum every walk-up ticket is Pay What You Want. In The T Party—a celebration of multigender fluidity in the human species (plus some polyamorous dolphins)—every gender performativity is Play Who You Want.

Writer/Director Power riffs imaginatively on real life stories of actual residents of DC (plus said denizens of the deep), and the storytelling she stages is as captivating as it is cathartic. Through surprising juxtapositions of playlets, dance, music, and spectacle, The T Party invites the audience to join in the cast’s liberating fun.

There’s a hilariously awkward yet erotic online hookup between two people (played by Jonathan Feuer and Rachel Hynes) who in cyberspace can freely present themselves as their gender du jour.

There’s a touching scene between two young girls (Sara Dabney Tisdale and Allie Villarreal) who fall in love then into fear as they’re shamed by a homophobic slur—and shut off all they felt for each other.

There’s a fascinating conversation between a married father, attracted to women, who cross-dresses  (Brendan Quinn) and a young transwoman, attracted to men, who’s transitioning and passing (Rafael Sebastian). Despite the fact they’re both wearing female clothing, their brittle exchange opens a harsh and unsisterly divide between between them.

There’s a jokey scene in a local gay bar with actors costumed as bears and otters (Zachary Gilbert as a baby cub nurses on a squeeze bottle of honey).

And then there are those dolphins. My, how they float one another’s boat. An ensemble of actors, covered head to toe in stretch fabric, leap and squeak about the stage with giddy abandon, canoodling every which way, as a cool rapper emcee (Nehemiah Markos) quotes from an academic paper about their aquatic homoerotics. This improbable mash-up of hip music track, scholarly text (including footnotes), and buoyant dance moves becomes its own ridiculously entertaining and enlightening art form.

The show actually begins in the lobby, where a lively party gets started (including karaoke) that then segues into an onstage prom (where anyone can dance along). The letter in the title stands for many words beginning with T, we learn—among them transformation and transcend. And the free-form party motif sets a lighthearted tone of freedom from gendered and gendering constraints.

There’s not much about the real-world violence that enforces gender norms, the femiphobic animus that assigns subordinate status to some and one-size-fits-no-one straitjackets to all. Gender in The T Party is treated more as fashion statement than war zone. Yet throughout there are telling evocations of the hostility faced by anyone who steps out of line, as for instance in this recitation:

One in 250 people in the US who were born male seek sex reassignment surgery.
One in 500 people in the US who were born female seek sex reassignment surgery.
One in 350 people in the US identify as transgender
One in 150 transgender people in the US die by homicide.
One in five teenagers that are homeless in the US identify as transgender.
One in two people who identify as transgender has had a suicide attempt before the age of 20.

To my astonishment, I discovered, The T Party also begins in the restrooms, those inner sanctums of gender regimentation. Upon entering the Forum Theatre men’s room, I happened upon a gathering of audience members watching a scene, evidently scripted and rehearsed, between an actor outside a stall talking to an actor inside (giving instructions about  how to strap on an artificial penis, or something like that). When I returned moments later, there was yet another scene in progress: a male actor berating two female actors who were dressed in male drag and telling them to get the hell out. I’m told similar scenes take place in the women’s room. So don’t miss the action in the biffies beforehand.

Whenever high entertainment value and authentic content converge in theater is reason to cheer. This show has done that to a T. The T Party is a hoot with heft, a gas with gravitas, and it’s seriously silly.

Party on.