By Josh Inocéncio
For weeks, the LGBT community has witnessed Republicans organize a national campaign that seeks to undercut protections for gays and lesbians by packaging bills as “religious freedom” laws. To pass these bills, politicians are also peddling the myth that transgender individuals who seek to use public facilities corresponding to their gender identity want to violate women and children. But amid the so-called “bathroom bills” gripping the South, Spring High School’s theater program in the Houston area’s northern suburbs is a beacon for equality in the University Interscholastic League (U.I.L.) One-Act Play competition.
This year, Spring’s theater director, Mike Doggett, directed his students in Looking for Normal by Jane Anderson, which charts the journey of Roy, an Ohio man married for 25 years who comes out to his wife, Irma, and his children as a transwoman. As Doggett says, “The play brings out the dynamics of each middle-class family member as they struggle and come to terms with dad’s new transgender identity.”
For those unfamiliar, the U.I.L. One-Act Play contest in Texas is the largest high school theater festival in the world. Every year, teachers direct students in a play that is cut down to 40 minutes or less. There are six potential levels of competition—all the way to State—which takes place in Austin at The University of Texas each May. A panel of three judges (or sometimes a single judge at lower levels) ranks the top plays for advancement each round. Thus far, Spring High School’s production has advanced to Region, the level preceding State. The students have won multiple acting awards along the way, including Best Actor.
While directors frequently search for fresh material, there’s always a risk choosing a play that’s never been produced for U.I.L. But this didn’t deter Doggett from picking Looking for Normal for his students.
“I chose this play because of its timely theme and for the acting challenge it would present to the actors. The play has never been done for U.I.L., and I always look for something unique,” Doggett says. “I also chose this play because we have a number of LGBT students who are struggling with their identity, and I hope this play might help them.”
To prepare his students for these characters, Doggett invited Karen Carlson, a transwoman and PFLAG member in Houston, to speak at Spring High School about her marriage and her transition, which helped the two lead actors portray Roy and Irma.
“When Mr. Doggett brought Karen in, you could see this is a real person, and her story is so similar to the story of the show,” says Malik Cash, who plays Roy. “This is real, this does happen. This character has to be natural.”
Their most recent performance, which was the Area contest on April 9 at College Station High School, captured the subtleties of Roy’s transition from living as a man to embracing a female identity. Cash wasn’t over-the-top as his character becomes “more feminine” throughout the play; he steadily incorporated little moments in each scene from softening his voice to changing posture on the couch to reacting to new breasts developing with the hormones.
“I did not want to offend anyone or do anything outlandish,” Cash says.
In many ways, Irma carries the story as she struggles to understand her husband’s transition. Initially, Irma kicks Roy out into a local motel; however, she learns how to continue loving Roy and decides to stay married despite their reverend’s suggestion to divorce.
“In a story like this, you would assume that Irma’s going to leave,” says Italia Bell, who plays Irma. “When the reverend tells her that she can finally walk away from Roy, that’s the point where she realizes it’s not okay to leave. She’s diligent in making her relationship work with her husband and children.”
In the final scene, as nurses wheel Roy into a hospital room for her gender-affirming surgery, Irma tells the audience, “Oh sweet Roy, sweet soul, what we do for love.”
In producing this play, Doggett didn’t face opposition from the students, their parents, or his administration at Spring High School. Spring’s principal, Tia Simmons, has strongly supported the play from the beginning.
“Spring High School has a diverse student population, and we strive to create a culture where all students are respected and included regardless of their race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, national origin, or disabling condition,” says Simmons. “Although we have counselors available to support students who need or request support, Looking for Normal speaks for my students who remain silent or confide quietly.”
While several audience members walked out of the District performance on March 24, they weren’t rowdy in the theater, nor did they file a complaint with the U.I.L. State office.
“At the end of that same contest, I had a student from one of the other plays competing come up to me in tears, thanking me for having the courage to do the play because he was going through the same issue,” Doggett says. “Hearing that was worth everything!”
The main thing Doggett wants audiences to take away from Looking for Normal is: “On this planet, we are all equal human beings no matter what the color of our skin, our sexual orientation, religion, or gender. This play is really about love and acceptance.”
Spring’s production may not directly undo the anti-LGBT legislation in North Carolina or Mississippi or even prevent Texas state representatives from proposing similar legislation next year. However, the theatre’s ability to embody human experiences onstage can certainly open the minds of audience members who may have never interacted with a transgender person or listened to their story.
Spring High School will perform at the Region contest on Friday, April 22, at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. For local audiences, they will perform the play, free of charge, on Saturday, May 21, at 7 p.m. at Spring High School.