NEW YORK — A woman pulls out a letter she has written to her younger self and dedicated to her daughter. The advice is sweet and maternal:
"You are a beautiful young woman."
But for Milan, the woman reading the letter, the source of her wisdom has an edge.
"I'm priceless yet I find myself constantly putting a price tag on my body.”
Milan is young, only in her 20s, the daughter she mentions is a teenaged friend whom she mentors. And the advice is based on her experience as a young trans woman and, for a time, as a sex worker. Milan and her four fellow cast members traveled from New Orleans to perform “Say My Name, Say My Name” at the New York Live Arts Center in Manhattan last week.
The piece transported the audience again and again to New Orleans. The city is the hometown of the five performers — and the focus of their work. The cast members are all part of BreakOUT!, a youth-led organization that works to end the criminalization of LGBTQ youth of color in New Orleans. The words they speak on stage are all based on their lives. The stories they tell, of being beaten by a grandfather after coming out or of being fired after transitioning at work, are real.
“Say My Name, Say My Name” starts with a light question: what do people think when they think of New Orleans? One by one, the cast touches on the city’s hedonistic reputation, from Bourbon Street to Mardi Gras to boozing, before settling on a darker side of the city that affects the lives of LGBTQ youth daily.
New Orleans is the incarceration capital of the world, according to a 2012 Times-Picayune series on Louisiana’s prison system. At the time of the series’ publication, reporter Cindy Chang wrote: “The state imprisons more of its people, per head, than any of its U.S. counterparts. First among Americans means first in the world. Louisiana's incarceration rate is nearly five times Iran's, 13 times China's and 20 times Germany's.”
For the cast members, the New Orleans Police Department’s policies affect them daily. In one scene, they each speak one line to tell their collective experience: “I am black.” “And transgender.” “That’s two marks against me.” “And don’t forget I’m a woman too.” “That’s three.”
One of the cast members, Adore, then shares a story about police neglect. After being beaten by her partner, she calls the police who, when they see she’s a trans woman, tell her, “You’re the same gender, you can work it out.”
The piece was developed in collaboration with Ping Chong + Company, a New York-based theater company, as part of their Undesirable Elements series, which was created in 1992. The pieces in the series are not traditional plays but, as the company defines them, “community-specific, interview- based theater works that examine the real lives of people who in some way are living as ‘outsiders’ in their communities.”
Like other productions in the series, “Say My Name, Say My Name” uses threads of each cast member’s life story throughout the script. Mieke Dee and Sara Zatz of Ping Chong + Company gathered the material through interviews and workshops with eight members of BreakOUT! and then drafted a script that was then edited collaboratively with the cast.
But when the company first approached BreakOUT! to create a new Undesirable Elements piece, the organization’s members did not immediately accept the offer. They had questions about the process and the partnership, said Wes Ware, the director of BreakOUT!
“These are folks from New York, how is this going to work? They’re going to come down and get our stories and then what?” he said “We weren’t sold at first.”
The members of BreakOUT! had group discussions and eventually turned to online videos of previous Ping Chong + Company performances, which only led to more questions.
“We started watching some of their videos of their Undesirable Elements project, and honestly, I remember we were like, ‘That’s not theater! That’s people sitting in chairs, that’s not theater. We want song and dance and glamour!’” Ware said with a laugh.
But the members said they took a leap of faith and accepted the invitation. The collaboration process formally began in early October 2013 when Sara Zatz and Mieke Dee of Ping Chong + Company flew down to New Orleans for an intensive period creating the piece that would become “Say My Name, Say My Name.”