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Datebook: Coalescence Theatre Project Speaks To Intersex, Trans Audiences With 'Boy'

Left to right: Dion Alexander McNeal, Don Shandrow, and Terrence Mayfield talk about Coalescence Theatre Project's upcoming virtual production of Anna Ziegler's "Boy."
Breanna Grow
Left to right, Dion Alexander McNeal, Don Shandrow, and Terrence Mayfield talk about Coalescence Theatre Project's upcoming virtual production of Anna Ziegler's "Boy."

Playing the lead in Coalescence Theatre Project’s virtual production of Anna Ziegler’s “Boy” is Terrence Mayfield’s most challenging role yet.

For one, unlike Mayfield, his character, Adam, is intersex.

“Which has been the hugest barrier,” Mayfield said. Even after all the research he’s done on the topic, Mayfield said he’s still a cisgender man who’ll never know what it’s like to be intersex.

“I still find myself wondering if I ‘bring it’ as much as I need to,” he said.

Another layer of pressure comes from knowing that Adam is more than a character: he’s based on a real person.

Adam, whose story mirrors that of David Reimer, was born male. As an infant, he suffered a disfiguring accident during a routine medical procedure and a well-intentioned doctor convinces his parents to raise their son as a girl.

Ticket Details

What: Coalescence Theatre Project and Prairie Pride Coalition Present Anna Ziegler's "Boy"
When: 7:30 p.m. June 25, 26 & 27
Where: Streaming online
Tickets: Pay-what-you-can at https://www.showtix4u.com/event-details/54240

The play picks up two decades later when Adam has reclaimed his male identity, but still struggles with the lies of his parents and the doctor who led them astray.

It’s a horrifically specific trauma, but one that members of the LGBTQ+ community can doubtless still relate to, especially in the context of Pride month, said Mayfield.

“It explores all of those central themes that we think of when we think of Pride, like love, gender, acceptance of the self,” he said. “It incorporates so many of those things that we don’t normally think of and we take for granted, but that people in the queer community have to challenge every single day.”

Co-producer and video editor Dion Alexander McNeal insists he and director Don Shandrow weren’t thinking about making a powerful statement for Pride month when they added “Boy” to the theater's 2021 lineup. But McNeal said the show is timely all the same.

“We’re starting to see intersex be included into the Pride flag, and it being talked about more,” he said. “I think when this play lined up with it being Pride Month, it allowed us to speak to our, my fellow community, the LGBT community, about, this has happened, and have we healed, and if so, what does that look like?”

Bloomington's Prairie Pride Coalition secured funding for the production through the Acorn Equality Fund, in addition to serving as a collaborative partner.

Shandrow recognizes the special significance the play has for trans audiences.

“The play deals with gender dysphoria and not feeling that you’re quite right, that your identity is off, is out of sync,” he said. As a child, Adam struggles not only with gender dysphoria, but with having those feelings denied outright.

Shandrow said the production benefits greatly from the insight of dramaturg Connor Macabee.

“This play would have been difficult to do without having a dramaturg, a researcher who is there who is trans,” said Shandrow. “She’s been an important part of the family of this cast.”

“Connor was just amazing in being able to provide that sort of understanding of, not necessarily what it’s like to suffer from gender dysphoria, but what it’s like to be exposed to this story,” agreed Mayfield. “Which is another reason why I feel like this play is so important beyond its themes: this is information. This is a story that people can look up, can research, can learn about.”

But educating general audiences about diversity is more of a secondary effect, Shandrow said; producing shows like “Boy” that speak to diverse audiences is the more important goal. In fact, it’s the whole reason Coalescence exists.

“I was at a production about 11, 12 years ago at another theater, and I looked around (at the audience) and I saw a sea of the same people, the same demographic, and I thought, ‘Why?’” Shandrow recalled. “And so ultimately the question to be answered by Coalescence Theatre Project is why.”

One question Coalescence is asking of late: why does theater have to be in-person?

Like numerous theaters around the globe, Coalescence began producing virtual shows after the COVID-19 pandemic made gathering in crowds irresponsible.

But as Illinois moves closer to a full reopening, Shandrow said Coalescence has no plans to drop the screens.

“(Digital theater) is not a band-aid, it’s not something that’s going to get us back to doing live theater, it is now what we do besides doing live theater,” he said.

McNeal added digital theater makes a lot of sense for a theater company that wants to reach diverse audiences.

“I have individuals in my family who are disabled,” he said. “Having closed captions being readily accessible, different ADA compliances that we really didn’t think about before in theater, it’s just more helpful for really bringing in folks who may not have been able to access the play.”

It's also allowed Coalescence to attract actors and audiences from across the country.

The format is not without its challenges, of course.

“Once you get on a Zoom call it’s just three boxes and a black space,” said McNeal. “And so how do you transform that space so that people feel like they’re in the theater, or in an actual place and there in person?”

As a director, Shandrow said he tries to stay true to the playwright’s original intentions.

“And because we’re not doing it live, and there’s stage directions in the script, you can go, ‘Well, we obviously can’t have a passionate kiss, how do we convey that in a way that affects the audience the same as a passionate kiss would?’”

See how Coalescence Theatre Project translates Anna Ziegler's "Boy" from the script to the screen at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Tickets are available online on a pay-what-you-can basis.

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Breanna Grow is a correspondent for GLT. She joined the station in September 2018.
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