They, Themself, and Schmerm at Abrons Art Center

Photo credit: George Maracineanu)

Photo credit: George Maracineanu

Becca has a magnetism naturally suited for an audience.  Flexible in expression, solid in stature, Becca can hold their own.  It’s no wonder friends encouraged them to do a solo show.

“Everyone kept saying I should do a solo show and that was my worst nightmare,” Becca says, and chuckles.  Good solo shows are hard to come by, and Becca Blackwell – as an artist who has received considerable and growing attention in the last couple years – at first did not want to take a nose dive into the potentially stodgy world of solo-ing.  But digging to unearth their resistance had great appeal – especially for a performer who has come to learn that resistance is the artist’s greatest ally.  This core value – of seeing opportunity in resistance, or confinement, or pain – resonated most profoundly in Blackwell’s performance, as they traversed the rocky terrain of personal exposure.

The show is called They, Themself, and Schmerm, (written and performed by Blackwell), and recently finished a short run at Abrons Art Center.  The title is a spin off of the Corey Haim 1989 vanity doc Me, Myself, and I – a 36 minute video of Haim’s desperate attempt to convince the world that life is grand and he’s okay.  “I looked at him and saw all this pain,” Becca recalls, reflecting on their initial reaction.  They found the video on YouTube during a rabbit hole of interneting, and decided to use it as a soft template for their show.  “I recognized things in him,” Becca says, namely that he was a survivor of sexual abuse – a kind of recognition akin to being able to “smell a queer person in the room.”  Queerness, surviving sexual abuse, being adopted – there is a separate kind of antennae reserved for those who can claim and spot these titles, and Blackwell’s is finely tuned.

Before the show begins, the audience is encouraged to get a drink, and take in the displays tacked on to the walls of the stage – personal artifacts intended to get us better acquainted with our subject.  For those who have come without context or foreknowledge, they quickly learn topics of sex, sexuality, and gender are likely contenders for this show’s content.

“We’re not a culture that looks at sex in a very expansive way,” Becca says, musing on a personal fantasy of explaining our cultural understanding of gender to an alien.  Imagine that alien’s reaction to this explanation: …so, you’re treated differently based on the melanin of your skin, and if you have an outtie not an innie, things are easier.  Over tea, Becca talks about our centuries-old system that operates under the guidance of a strict binary – which is oddly contrary to the human truth that life is ambiguous, messy, and filled with lots of grey.  And living in a patriarchal society predicated on the needs and desires of men leaves little elbow room for anyone other.  Becca used to be she, now goes by they, and has dodged/claimed/responded to everything in between.

“A schmerm is a schmear of gender.  The sound of gender clapping and then clasping its own hand,” Becca explained to their audience in an opening sequence of their show.  They pranced about the stage making jocular proclamations about themself, ranging from topics of breast cancer to finger banging.  They do this with such full fearlessness and commitment and humor, the audience found themselves laughing with every statement.  And as the show progressed, Becca took more time and nuance to explore their topics and weave their stories, giving a greater wealth of emotional complexity and understanding.

“I wanted to throw it in the face, but also be the one who cleans it up and makes it comfortable,” Becca says, explaining how they chose to structure and deliver their material.  By doing this, Becca was able to simultaneously take back the power of traumatic experience, and create a safe space for themself.  This confidence makes them easy to watch – beginning to end, we trust Becca knows what they are doing.

After their delightful prologue, Becca gives a more informal greeting to their audience directly, further establishing Becca’s desire to ensure their audience’s needs are met.  And then the stories begin, bouncing back and forth along their timeline, gradually unspooling a thread that links childhood with adulthood, trauma with insight, bathrooms with hospitals.  With their feet firmly planted, Becca’s gestures swoop with fierce intention, lending a unique combination of groundedness and pliancy.  And throughout are assertions of gender, genitals, and the sensation of feeling other.

A big turning point came for Becca when they performed in Young Jean Lee’s Untitled Feminist Show – a touring production comprised of women performing naked.  “Because I had to do that show naked, I realized I needed to not be identified as she because I wasn’t living the life that everyone on that stage with a pussy was living.”  Yet at the same time, Becca was not about to change their name and denounce the ‘she’ they spent so many formative years living as.  “I’m not convincingly male, and I’m not convincingly female, and that’s what makes everyone bonkers,” Becca says, as they talk about being a performer in the unforgiving Big Apple.  In many ways, the world of theatre is behind the zeitgeist, and many an auditioner has been befuddled by Becca.  “Someone said to me, you’re like the most adored ignored person in downtown theatre,” Becca says, and even though the trans community is now being given more voice, it is also becoming fetishized by the entertainment industry, a trend Becca notes as, “like Portlandia: instead of put a bird on it, it’s put a trans on it.”

Becca takes a pause in the middle of their show to check in with the audience again, stepping out of their string of stories to make it clear that they are not here to speak on behalf of the trans community, or other trans people – they’re just telling a personal story.  Becca reminded me of this over our tea-talk several times, and it’s interesting to note, because it’s true: we are so quick to thrust a spokesperson identity on trans folk, especially on those affiliated with the entertainment industry.  Yet every individual has a completely personalized involvement with the world, and the notion that we – that anyone – can codify that experience is fundamentally contrary to what it means to be human.  Again, we return to the similar cultural rigidity found in our strict adherence to a binary system.

“Men aren’t allowed to feel – how can men feel joy if they can’t feel sorrow?” Becca says, empathizing with the tight restrictions and expectations we have on men – a conundrum Becca coins as “baby men” in their show.  That is, men who, because they have not been given the freedom or room to express all of feeling’s colors, grow up with a stunted emotional intelligence – and because our system is geared toward revering and adhering male superiority, this in turn imbues a whole culture that also struggles to contextualize feelings and locate a sense of authenticity.  And anything or anyone that steps outside of that risks being perceived as a threat: “I think there’s something terrifying to people about someone with a vagina having capacities similar to someone with a penis, because then, what’s the value of having a penis in the patriarchy?”

This topic guided Becca’s story in to the darker realms of drug abuse, a suicide attempt, exacerbated feelings of abandonment, and the cutting up of residual heart strings that might make them vulnerable with another person.  I must note, it is difficult to communicate in an article how it is so much of this show was funny.  But it was.  Comedy is simply in Becca’s bones, and no matter how dark or analytical the territory, they always brought us home with a laugh.

It comes with great relief when Becca recounts their first romance, first true kiss, first understanding of their sexuality – a story with themes and awakenings common amongst queer coming-out stories, yet Becca talks with such gentle candor, it truly feels new and special.  No matter what gender or sexual identity you might claim, we all know this feeling, and being let in to Becca’s feels special.

“I think there was a part of me that deeply didn’t think my story was valuable enough – I think that like, due to the perfect storm of crazy shit that happened to me, I was always questioning my value,” Becca says, returning to the ‘why’ behind creating their show.  They, Themself, and Schmerm is – to my mind – an affirmation of value attained via an acceptance of a tangled life spent coloring outside the lines.  And it is an affirmation that feels important to witness.

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