The moral panic that accompanies wide-scale transgender visibility is surely a result of individual instability. Not necessarily an insecurity about one’s own gender, but the realisation we are all fragmented, developing, subject to change, and that nothing can protect us from this. It’s arguable transgender people are just shifting more publicly, in a more accelerated way. And this is what really fascinates us.
Anthea Williams agrees. She’s the director of Hir, the new play by Belvoir Street Theatre which explores these themes and then some. “Max, [one of the main characters in the play] is in transition yes, but it’s more than that,” she says, “it’s an entire family in transition, a town in transition, a country in transition.”
‘Hir’ refers to locale (“here”), in a remote part of working class Carolina, as much as it does to the introduction of less traditional gender markers and pronouns (“hir” rather than him or her). It’s an unsteady but delightful look at the crumbling facility of nuclear family, and the salvation that can come from the wreckage.
Arnold, the father figure of Hir, is encountering one child, Isaac, who is struggling with the aftershock of war, and an unattractive but necessary conversation about mental health issues that must follow – and another child, who is transgender. His world view is revealed to be totally conditional, but it’s not like his children don’t feel these shifting dilemmas and instabilities too.
What does it mean to be queer, to have an instinct to escape home and find solace elsewhere when your formerly abusive father has a stroke and becomes disabled?
Williams doesn’t seek to answer such questions so much as lean into them and see where they lead. “What responsibility do we have to those who abused us? As much as America is divided, the middle class left have abandoned the working class right and something has come from that [now]. The play is absolutely dealing with urban blight, parts of California where housing is massively down.”
Hir was written by American performance artist, low-key visionary and playwright Taylor Mac, who’s chosen pronoun – joyfully – is “judy with a lower-case J”. Film clips of Mac on YouTube reveal an audacious artist who goes all-in, flaunting dramatic costumes and comic statements that come with a sudden twist of drama and honesty. It’s very easy to see how these performances have been developed by Mac into a larger work like Hir.
“It’s not an easy play, it’s a problematic play,” says Williams. “And it’s not a PC play. It has a giant big heart and its heart is in the right place, but not everyone is using the right language, there are disagreements, and people are fighting over territory. This is a family that’s [already] been dealing with abuse and war and money problems and disability.”
The ability to handle these heavy and complex matters without gripping them too tight is what Hir exalts in. Being able to self-assign the right terms and identifiers might be shrugged off as New Age political correctness gone mad by some pundits, but ask yourself – isn’t it to all our benefit that we are recognising an ability to self-determine, and the ability to be able to ask our loved ones to see us as we truly want to be seen?
“Gender is ancient,” Williams tells me. “Max says this in the play: ‘I’m not new, I’m ancient! Gender is not new! Actually, there are other more important things to worry about… can you just catch up and move on?’
“Weirdly, the company I worked for in London just did this play,” says Williams. “It feels like these conjoined atoms that go to the other side of the universe and are still doing the same thing here… I just had an email from a company in New Zealand who are planning to do it [too].
“I think what’s so interesting about Hir is that it was first done in 2015, but it feels so – I hate to use the ‘T’ word – like a play that’s speaking to Trump’s America. Because Arnold, the patriarch, absolutely would have been a Trump voter. He is working class and racist and sexist and doesn’t want the world to change. Equality feels like a threat, or actual persecution to him.”
Mac’s play has a quality Williams struggles to define as “… foresight”. Its taxonomy shows a world where there is no movement – a circle where the inner section is one of utter comfort, where nothing is being challenged. Beyond that is a healthy zone of stretching, and then a zone that Williams describes as “the utterly overwhelming”. Hir nonetheless shows us that the way we grow is by pushing ourselves. It reveals how our different personal parallels and conflicts are all a part of our being unfixable, complicated, maybe even toxic, and undeniably human.
Hir is playing at Belvoir Theatre’s Upstairs Theatre from 12 August – 10 September. Tickets are available here or via the phone on 02 9699 3444.