From the second you enter the lobby of the Calderwood Pavillion, it’s clear that what awaits is not just another night at the theater. You see, there’s a prom going on inside the Roberts Studio Theatre – a 90s prom, to be exact –and simply put, you’d be a fool to miss it.
The drama spills over into the hallway just outside the theater where the principal hurries guests inside, an anxious teen dashes exasperatedly through the crowd, and inside the bathroom, one student has reduced another to tears.
Inside, the audience is free to mingle and dance. It is there, at the 90s prom that opens Company One Theatre’s sparkling production of Natsu Onoda Power’s The T Party, a kaleidoscopic look at gender identity, that our expectations are left at the door and our guards are lowered. As the doors close, it becomes clear that whatever is about to be experienced will be done so together.
“One of the things I love about this show is that it’s a party, so you come in and we’re celebrating,” said Mal Malme, a T Party actor and cofounder of Queer Soup Theater. “That in and of itself tends to unite people, and it’s with that spirit that this show starts. That’s the spirit that we hope is imbued throughout the entire production.”
The T Party unfolds in a series of vignettes that run the gamut from playful and cartoonish to provocative and devastating. Power, a Georgetown University professor, developed the play with students from her 2008 Gender and Performance Studies Seminar. (The play premiered in 2013 at Forum Theatre in Silver Spring, Md.) Power says that her interest in topics of gender and identity had long existed academically, but that the play was born out of personal experience, the details of which Power says she will only share with her cast.
“I wrote the play as a thank you gift to people who helped me through that time,” she said. “The nice irony is that although I wrote it as a thank you gift, the community keeps on giving me gifts.”
Since 2007 when Power began writing The T Party, the cultural climate around matters of gender – particularly the transgender community – has shifted dramatically. “The audience comes in with a very different set of knowledge, expectations, and assumptions,” Power said. “It’s one of the fastest transforming topics of conversation of the last ten years. At the time, people didn’t quite understand it.”
Although Power chose to keep the play set in 2007 and has made few structural changes, she has incorporated some snippets that have come directly from the cast members’ personal stories. For Malme, this has made things even more vibrant. “We just have a great group of people,” said Mal. “We really are having a great time with each other and I think that really, genuinely just makes the show pop.”
A few weeks before performances began, Power cut a line from the play’s final scene that she had recently added to the script especially for this production. The line read: “The playwright thinks this is the last time she will direct this play.”
“There’s an active discussion about who gets to write about trans experiences, who gets to act in it, who gets to represent the community,” she said. And although Power refuses to characterize The T Party as a play only about the trans experience, she began to feel that maybe she should step back and allow for others’ work to be produced. According to Power, there has been some backlash against cisgender playwrights like herself that have written plays with trans characters.
But her position on the matter changed following the June 12 massacre at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub, and she removed the line from the play. “In that context, the line sounded defeatist,” said Power. “We party on. ‘Ain’t no party like a t party because a t party don’t stop.’ We party on.”
And what a party it is.