Transitioning bodies, transformative stories : live performance of transgender autobiographical narratives in the United States




O'Rear, Jesse Daniel

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The relationship between transgender communities and the autobiographical is historically and contemporarily contentious and complicated. Our autobiographies are demanded of us by the medical industry in order to gain access to healthcare; by the justice system in order to determine whether or not we are honest and worthy of safety and freedom; and by the media who perpetuate this system of what scholar Viviane Namaste calls the “autobiographical imperative,” the expectation that trans people will offer the intimate details of our personal lives at any time to a curious cisgender audience. However, many trans people have also relied on each other’s autobiographical narratives to learn how to navigate these same harmful systems, as well as find camaraderie, solidarity, and solace among one another. To this end, I execute performance analyses of three works by transgender-identified artists to examine the ways in which each production engages with the complexities of the autobiographical for trans subjects: Shakina Nayfack’s One Woman Show (2013), D’Lo’s To T or Not to T (2019), and Sean Dorsey Dance’s Uncovered: The Diary Project (2009). I argue that each work in its respective form, narrative structure, and execution either circumvents, directly challenges, or illuminates the oppressive parameters imposed by the autobiographical imperative. Additionally, I analyze on my own participation in a fictional piece of devised drama, TRANSom (2020), which I argue was subjected to what I have termed the “autobiographical assumption,” a consequence of the autobiographical imperative where imaginative work by trans people is perceived to be autobiographical. Finally, I reflect on the existence of and possibilities for sharing trans narratives in the realm of social media where interaction and affirmation can be immediate quantified. While this project recognizes that visibility and representation are not answers to discrimination, violence, and poverty (and, in fact, as Black trans women scholars and activists like Tourmaline remind us, often open doors to increased harassment), I hope to encourage space for present and future works of performance which allow for trans artists to bring their stories to the stage in ways that are beneficial to the artists and their communities.


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