'Hedwig' Celebrates A 20th Anniversary At Diversionary
Non-Binary actor cast as outsider turned rock star
Twenty years ago John Cameron Mitchell debuted his queer rock musical "Hedwig and the Angry Inch." Diversionary Theatre tackles the play for the first time and finds the outcast turned rock star has something to say to a new generation.
In 1967 "Hair" fired a revolutionary shot in a growing assault on middle class sexual mores with its "American Tribal Love Rock Musical." In the '70s Tim Curry and "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" added to the rebellion with the gleeful suggestion that transvestites, transsexuals, and sexual experimentations were not just OK, but fun. Then two decades later, Mitchell and his "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" expanded the revolution by moving the conversation from being about sexual orientation to gender identity.
If "Rocky" playfully asked whether we needed labels of gay or straight, "Hedwig" pondered with more emotional weight if labels of male and female were still accurate or if we needed something more. That seems a perfect conversation to being having now as "Hedwig" the rock musical turns 20.
"We’re living in a time right now of considerable political strife and Hedwig to me is like a superhero, she sort of solves all of the world’s woes with her outlook on life that is outrageous and bold and brave," said Matt Morrow, artistic director at Diversionary Theatre.
Morrow directs the new production of "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," which centers on an East German singer who goes through a botched sex change operation that leaves her with an "angry inch." Morrow recalled the impact the play had on him in the '90s.
"Oh my god, when I first saw 'Hedwig,' it blew me away. My head just exploded. I had no idea that a musical could do this. It just rocked me to my core," Morrow said.
He was rocked not just by the score but also by the story.
"Hedwig is the ultimate outsider and I think that many people connect with that point of view and what it feels like to not be understood and to have to fight to be heard and to be seen," Morrow added. "I think that that’s what Hedwig stands for, she stands for individuality and the need to be seen and heard as who you are and not what the world wants you to be."
Morrow wanted his Hedwig to be something different for a new generation so he conducted a nationwide search for a gender non-binary or trans-performer to play Hedwig.
"I am really thrilled with who we found in our own backyard — Jeremy Wilson is an amazing non-binary actor," Morow said. "It’s part of the conversation we’re having in the nation right now and we have to honor opportunities for non-binary performers and I think 'Hedwig' is a really great way into a conversation and celebrate the diversity of gender."
Wilson remembers seeing the song "Origin of Love" from "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" performed on a TV talk show.
"It was life changing," Wilson recalled. "Because at the time I didn’t know the word genderqueer and non-binary but I’ve always felt different. Seeing this beautiful being on television, seeing this transcendent song, and it just took me to this place that I had never been before and I knew I was going to New York and I was going to be an actor and so it gave me this whole new purpose and it gave me this whole new fire so it really shaped a lot of my life from then on and I knew from that moment that I wanted to play that role. Hedwig is this beautiful creature that doesn’t fit into a box just like so many of us."
Playing with gender has been at the heart of "Hedwig" since the beginning with women usually taking on the role of Hedwig’s husband. Cashae Monya plays Yitzhak in Diversionary’s production.
"I love playing men," Monya said. "Because we live in a patriarchal society so immediately I feel like my status goes up, it’s OK for me to be direct, it’s OK for me to be aggressive and ambitious, things that I already am but you don’t feel like you have as much freedom as a woman."
Wilson likes that "Hedwig" opens up conversations about gender.
"We really weren’t having those conversations in the '90s as we are today so if anything I feel like that has given a richness and a depth to this beautiful creature with age," Wilson said. "What I would love for each and every person who comes to see this show to take away is to recognize themselves in Hedwig. What I find so beautiful is that it translates to everyone that this person’s struggles can be seen in anyone’s struggles and that this person’s story, although unique, can really be found in anyone’s story."
Society probably isn't ready to dispose of the idea of gender just yet but maybe it would consider adding new categories that people like Hedwig and Wilson can identify with.
"Hedwig and the Angry Inch" begins preview performances tonight at Diversionary Theatre.