On Dec. 31, the Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte (ATC) will ring in the new year with a return to Hadley Theatre, which has served as its home on the Queens University campus since 2017, but was forced to shut down as the pandemic clamped in March 2020.
After months of shutdowns and creative outdoor productions, ATC will be presenting its first indoor show since COVID-19 hit: Hedwig and the Angry Inch, starring local actor and comedian Ryan Stamey as Hedwig. The production will kick off with a New Year’s Eve party on Dec. 31, followed by a Jan. 5-22 run.
Launched off Broadway in 1998, Hedwig follows the titular character as she chases love and superstardom in the United States. But COVID-19 isn’t the only issue the company must adapt to for this production. More than two decades after the musical’s premiere, Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte must now reckon with the production’s more problematic aspects.
Hedwig has long faced scrutiny for its depiction of transition and gender identity, but the questions have grown more urgent in this time, as trans rights and issues have become more openly discussed; and in this place, as North Carolina has infamously been home to HB2 and now Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, who regularly spouts hate speech about the LGBTQ community from whatever pulpit he can find.
I recently sat down with Stamey and executive director Chip Decker to discuss Hedwig and ATC’s approach to this latest production.
An introduction to the ‘Angry Inch’
Stamey didn’t get acquainted with Hedwig and the Angry Inch until college, but once he did, he knew that he had found his “dream role,” he explained.
“It was around the time that I was coming out [as gay] to my friends and my family,” he told me. “[Hedwig] was just a taste of this alternative, queer culture. I was totally enamored with … the ‘genderfuck’ aspect of the whole production.”
It’s easy to understand why Hedwig and the Angry Inch is so beloved. The musical’s star is Hedwig, an East German-born punk rocker. Against a backdrop of 1970s glam rock and the Cold War, Hedwig tells her life story, including how she came to have the “angry inch” — the genitalia she was left with after being coerced into a back-alley bottom surgery.
There are endless obstacles, many of which hinge on her status as a gender outcast. Nevertheless, she is brilliant, bold and unabashedly queer to the very end.
As trans media representation has scaled up into the topic du jour, a lot of former fans have adopted a more critical view of the musical’s issues; and there are several. For one, Hedwig’s story is fraught with transphobic tropes. She begins as a “little slip of a girlyboy” who is then coerced into a sex change by her fiancée and mother.
When she lands in the United States, she ends up in the tabloids for — among other things — pursuing an intimate relationship with a teenager. These plot points play into two contrived talking points about trans people: that young people are forced into transitions and that trans women are sexual predators.
For what it’s worth, playwright and creator John Cameron Mitchell has gone to great lengths to distance Hedwig from transness. In a 2019 interview with Advocate.com, he said Hedwig is not transgender because she was “mutilated and forced into a gender assignment against her will.”
Mitchell has stated many times over the show’s history that the theme is less about gender identity and more about finding oneself.
I don’t doubt his authorial intent, but the runaway success of Hedwig means that he no longer has complete creative control over the characters.
As for his view of the show’s overall message, ATC’s Decker told me, “This is a show about a transgendered [sic] individual whose transition goes horribly wrong.”
Other people have other ideas about who Hedwig is. What’s more, the people adapting Mitchell’s musical — cast, crew and executives — are by and large cisgender. And for the better part of the past two decades, the safety and dignity of transfeminine people has not figured as a major concern in the industry.
Over the years, what limited nuance there was for Hedwig has all but faded into a morass of transmisogyny. At a certain point, you come to and you realize you are watching a man in a wig chasing a 17-year-old boy. Suddenly, it doesn’t seem so genderfuck anymore.
Throughout our interview, Stamey acknowledged the stickier parts of the source material, but seemed optimistic about the company’s ability to make it more inclusive.
“I hope people come to the show with an open mind and an open heart,” he said. “If they have questions, I hope they’re not afraid to ask them. That’s how dialogues begin, that’s how conversations begin … and if anything comes out of the show, that is what I hope for.”
Conversation, not controversy
Part of ATC’s mission is to connect with the audience beyond the traditional bounds of the stage. One way it does this is through what it calls “talkbacks,” in which the team follows up on a show by hosting a panel discussion featuring experts, activists and other important figures involved in themes that run through a given production. Through this practice, which ATC began in 2005, Decker believes audience members are able to come to a better appreciation of the productions.
“This is an opportunity and a safe space to have these conversations that lead to a better understanding of ourselves,” he said.
This will be the first time the company has done a talkback for Hedwig. Typically, the practice isn’t done with musicals, but in light of the musical’s issues, Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte felt it was appropriate.
Hedwig talkbacks will include staff and volunteers with Time Out Youth and Transparent, two organizations in Charlotte supporting young trans people and their families. The hope is that extending the discussion beyond the script will push people to learn more about gender.
“[These talkbacks are] basically geared toward starting conversations about things that people just don’t feel comfortable talking about,” Decker says.
For the first read-through of the script, Decker invited a transgender person to speak about their experiences and answer questions the cast had.
There are no transgender members of the production team — only cisgender and gender-nonforming, according to Decker – but he does think the outreach efforts will make for a better experience.
“One of the things I tell my staff a lot is, ‘There’s no good in doing controversial theatre. We do conversational theatre,’” he said. “Controversy shuts people down, conversation lets people have a safe space to talk.”
Crucially, Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte decided to stick with one particularly controversial aspect of the play: the casting of Hedwig as a cis man. This choice conflicts with contemporary modes of trans representation in pop culture; the practice of casting cis actors in trans roles has become taboo in Hollywood and elsewhere.
In 2020, the casting of a cisgender actor in a trans role for a British theatrical production of Breakfast on Pluto led to an uproar, followed in May 2021 by the signing of the Trans Casting Statement, in which more than forty major UK theatre production companies pledged to “never cast, or endorse a production that casts, a cisgender person in a trans, nonbinary or [gender-nonconforming] role.”
When asked about ATC’s choice, Decker was unsure.
“You know, that’s a great question. Everybody that I’ve seen [play Hedwig] … they identify as gay cis male, from all of our productions to the Broadway original and the revival. That’s a great question. I don’t know. It comes down to who comes into the audition room.”
When asked why trans people don’t come into the audition room, he responded, “We’re still, it’s — I don’t know. You’d have to talk to someone who is transgender, I think.”
Stamey was more thorough in his response.
“The way [the show] has been interpreted by a lot of directors is that Hedwig is a young gay boy who was forced into a sex change,” he said. “None of the previous productions we ever did — at least at Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte — was there any mention of Hedwig being nonbinary or transgender or anything like that whatsoever.”
Stamey said he has his own understanding of Hedwig — one that places her squarely among other gender-nonconforming people.
“For Hedwig to agree to go through with this sex change operation, this reassignment surgery — that’s not something you would do lightly. I was like, ‘I just don’t see someone jumping into that.’ So I interpret it as maybe [being trans] was always a part of Hedwig anyway.”
Above all, he said he hopes people recognize that Hedwig is a product of its time. Though it faced scrutiny for these same issues in the ’90s, Stamey points out that those critiques were not as widely recognized as they are today.
“There’s so many movies and TV shows that we go back and watch nowadays, and we realize, like, that was problematic,” he says. “I think presenting the show in its setting in the ’90s helps that … [Hedwig] needs to be presented as a period piece, because some of the things in it are problematic.”
When I asked him if, years later, he would look back on his performance — a cisgender man as the genderfuck — as problematic, Stamey paused.
“I — hmm. I’ve wondered.”
We both broke out into nervous laughter.
What can be done to salvage a story like Hedwig and the Angry Inch?
Initially, I didn’t want to write this preview because it meant answering that question, and in order to do so, you have to argue that Hedwig is in need of salvaging in the first place.
To me, the prospect of asking cis people what they thought about the musical’s forays into transmisogyny was bleaker than bleak, which is why I was surprised to learn that the folks at ATC didn’t need convincing. To a degree, they already understood how flawed the source material was.
That is why I find this musical so frustrating. I don’t think that ATC is insincere about trying to tell trans stories the right way. What it is is stuck — stuck in this incessant conversation about making theatre a safe space, as if an exhibition of cis people pantomiming our struggle can ever be anything but violent.
No amount of listening and learning can change that.
But I think that has dawned on ATC as well. I followed up with Decker over email, asking how conversation would rectify Hedwig’s problems.
“I am not sure we can ever rectify all (or maybe even any) issues,” he responded. “But we can take steps to listen, involve the correct people, and produce with open hearts and empathy, and hopefully we sow some seeds of compassion that lead to change.”
Hedwig and the Angry Inch is a musical theatre phenomenon, which is precisely why its issues cannot be transcended.
In an industry dominated by tonys and Tonys, even the most radical stories performed by the most independent companies are mediated by white cis men and their interests. And for all its punk bravado, Hedwig wasn’t really that radical to begin with. It is cis people telling other cis people what it means to be transgender.
The safe space Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte is building isn’t for trans people; it’s for cis people to ask questions about us. Maybe the ensuing discussion will open some minds, or maybe watching a man in a wig sing “Wicked Little Town” will just be fodder for the local TERFs.
All I know is as we barrel into another year of political, social and literal attacks on trans liberation, this trans author finds himself unwilling to join that conversation.