You know this family in “The Mermaid Hour”: the middle-schooler struggling to establish independence and declare an identity, the loving parents who worry that choices made wrongly or too early lead to heartbreak down the road. It might be your family – if someone in it is transitioning from one gender to another.
That element, along with sensitive characterization and sound construction, made David Valdes Greenwood a winner of the 2016 nuVoices festival at Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte. The play earned a rolling world premiere at four theaters, with ATC becoming the fourth this week. It has earned a wide range of responses from people who have seen it, and a stinging rebuke from someone who hasn’t: Adam Shaw of Fox News, who singled it out as a sign of America’s cultural decline. (We’ll get to that later.)
“Mermaid” could not have swum into more turbulent social waters. The piece got a new ending at its Charlotte reading in 2016, while the state waded through the gender debate with HB2. But Valdes Greenwood says he never intended it to be a political play, especially one that bashes conservatives: The perplexed parents in it lean left.
It has toured to Tucson, Ariz. – where a producer came out beforehand to inform the audience it was OK to laugh at the comic parts – Portland, Ore., and Minneapolis, where it was re-mixed as a musical for the first and last time. Meanwhile, America has struggled to understand people whose gender identities change or who simply see themselves as non-binary.
“Mermaid” reflects what Valdes Greenwood teaches in creative writing classes at Tufts University. “I talk about the universal specific, the idea that the truth of a story helps people find themselves in it,” he says. “Don’t worry about whether your audiences have had the exact same experiences.
“Everyone in this play has his or her own journey, asking ‘Who am I?’ or ‘Am I who I thought I’d be?’ We’ve all done that. So everybody should have a point of entry to the story.”
Charlotte can claim primary ownership: The show took firmer shape at nuVoices, which Valdes Greenwood calls “the best development process I have ever been part of. You are steeped in rehearsals for eight days, rehearsing half a day and then writing half a day. As long as you get new lines to the actors at least two hours before the reading, they go in.”
Yet he took his inspiration half a dozen years ago from a dinner with a college roommate who had married, had kids and – at the age of 45 – transitioned. (This preceded Amazon’s Emmy-winning series “Transparent.”)
“She told me that, at age 6, her brother had said, ‘You have to wear boy clothes now, because you are a boy.’ She didn’t know how to react to that, so she did. And I started thinking about this story.”
He ultimately made his protagonist a transgender preteen named Violet, whose parents Bird and Pilar grapple with their daughter’s life-changing decision. Valdes Greenwood didn’t want her to be a saint oppressed by her family or society: She has a crush on her gay best friend that creates more confusion, and she makes an unfortunate video that goes viral before her parents know about it.
Then he realized during rewrites that she wasn’t the protagonist: The family was. As their daughter came into herself, Valdes Greenwood says, “It’s a touchy moment. How do I let my child go? How do I support them? You’re facing a choice that could hurt them or expose them to hurt.”
Valdes Greenwood asks himself those questions, now that he’s the divorced father of a seventh-grade girl. And he recalls the lack of support he felt from his conservative Cuban-American family, where he grew up knowing he was gay.
Because he wanted to explore all sorts of personality types, he made the mother a Cuban-American and made the mother of Vi’s best friend Asian. He insisted producers not hire cisgender actors – ones whose gender identity matches their birth gender – to play Vi.
“At the first reading I ever had, a producer told me, ‘If you insist on this casting, it will be impossible to cast.’ I started calling it my impossible play. But all four of the theaters have found the people they needed.”
ATC artistic director Chip Decker sweated awhile but lucked into Toni Reali, whose dad saw the audition notice. “We were talking to other theater companies about bringing in a Vi they’d used, paying the expenses and arranging for a tutor, but we fell in love with Toni. You just have to take that leap of faith when you fall in love with a play, even if it scares the heck out of you.”
Not everyone will love it, of course. Fox News’ Shaw condemned National Endowment for the Arts grants to “left-wing projects” and sneered specifically at “Mermaid.” Shaw’s piece quoted NEA chairman Jane Chu as saying these projects “are good examples of how the arts build stronger and more vibrant communities, improve well-being, prepare our children to succeed and increase the quality of our lives. (The NEA believes) all people should have access to the joy, opportunities, and connections the arts bring.”
Shaw then quoted Sohrab Ahmari, a senior writer at Commentary Magazine: “NEA grants are a form of welfare for cultural elites …. Judging by the latest welfare beneficiaries, those elites’ tastes remain as degraded as ever, eschewing the good, the beautiful and the true – and anything timeless and transcendent – in favor of soul-killing PC claptrap.”
Valdes Greenwood thinks the debate about transgender people may be partly age-related: “The older people are, the more they think – even if they’re supportive – ‘Oh, I’ve never met a trans person.’ But they probably have, and their kids and grandkids definitely have.
“We now move in a world where people can choose, where they don’t have to identify with a birth gender or any gender at all. That’s too big for some people to grasp, like the father in the play. But it’s true.”
‘The Mermaid Hour’
WHEN: Through May 19 at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Preview performances at 7:30 p.m. April 26-28.
WHERE: Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte in Queens University’s Hadley Theater, 2132 Radcliffe Ave.
TICKETS: $13.50-$22 for previews, $27-$44 for regular shows. Pay what you can on April 26.
DETAILS: 704-342-2251 or atcharlotte.org.