Batten down the hatches! Becca Blackwell is a true force of nature.
New York Theatre Workshop and WP Theater’s co-production of Hurricane Diane, written by Pulitzer Prize finalist Madeleine George and directed by Tony nominee Leigh Silverman, has hit off-Broadway. A non-binary trans actor and treasured denizen of New York’s downtown theater scene, Blackwell stars as Diane, a butch lesbian permaculture gardener who’s the Greek god Dionysus in disguise, on a modern mission to enchant four suburban housewives and save the Earth.
Blackwell, who itinerantly performs as a six-foot autonomous vagina named Snatch Adams, tracks this perfect storm of queer representation for NewNowNext.
You starred in the 2017 premiere of Hurricane Diane at New Jersey’s Two River Theater. Have you been involved with the play since its inception?
Yeah, Madeleine asked me to do an early reading. As an actor, I’ve gotten most parts because a playwright is already into me. She was concerned, though, because she wanted the character to be a butch. She asked me, “Would you even still play one?” But I was actually really excited about playing a bull dyke.
It might be my last opportunity to play one. But as someone living both genders, I like this concept of Dionysus being very masculine and feminine at the same time. It’s not really a stretch because Dionysus is often portrayed as a flamboyant, petulant queen.
How has your own gender expression informed the character?
When I did the play in 2017, I still had my breasts, and I really didn’t try to hide them—I mean, they weren’t that big, but you could tell. I was also keeping my mustache, because in my mind I was showing both genders. After I had top surgery, I wanted to shave, so now I have a more feminine face.
Why does Dionysus present as a lesbian to seduce the housewives?
Well, why would these women respond to another man who thinks he knows it all? The whole world is based on what men find attractive, and what women find attractive is what men find attractive. So there’s a radicalism about having a bull dyke taking women away from men, with no care about or reference to men at all. I find that empowering.
As Diane, you must be sexually irresistible. Is that taxing, particularly if you’re having a low self-esteem day?
Oh, it’s awful. I almost never want to do something like this again. It definitely hits all my insecurities, but it’s also exciting to work through that. Because I’ve never seen myself, a body like mine, on stage being revered or considered sexy. Madeleine and I have been in tears over the fact that this is really the first time someone like us has been represented as so sexualized.
Madeleine’s script has a note: “Diane may be played by any masculine person who does not identify as male.” How does that casting requirement benefit the piece?
When a butch is hitting on a straight woman, there’s a subtlety that cisgender men are clueless about. Women are always searching for clues—is this man going to hurt me?—so they’re socialized to be more in touch with the invisible.
I’ve seen you play trans men, cisgender men, and gender-ambiguous roles. I’ve even seen you play a horse/boat. But you don’t play many lesbians, do you?
I’m not the lesbian men want to see. In 2003 I auditioned for a bull dyke character in Bug off-Broadway. I wasn’t on hormones, and I wasn’t identifying as anything other than Becca, but the producers felt I was way too masculine for the part. I’ve been literally training audiences how to see my body, a body like mine, for 25 years—year after year of critics looking down to search for a man’s name in their Playbill.
We don’t see many butch lesbian lead characters at all.
You’ll maybe see bull dykes as laborers, always in service to others, working in nursing homes, loud and unattractive, but you don’t see them sexualized—and as someone who has lived as a bull dyke, I can tell you that the first thing you have to do is know how to fuck. Honestly, there are more opportunities for gender non-conforming actors than there are for butch lesbians.
Why is that?
Society still doesn’t value women, but especially women who don’t fall into a standard of attractiveness. A masculine woman is seen as having no clout in terms of sexiness or entertainment. Without a male narrative, no one knows what to do with them, because they negate men. If you have someone with a pussy who’s masculine, who wields sexual charm and command, then what’s the value of a man with a dick?
At this point in your career, is there any combination of gender and sexuality you have no interest playing?
It’s not like there are all these roles out there for me, so I’ll take what I can get. I’m willing to give anything a go when it comes who’s writing or who’s directing. I never would’ve done Hurricane Diane if it hadn’t been with Madeleine and Leigh. They understand as lesbians that the world doesn’t know how to deal with a masculine woman, and they knew that having me in the role would be a head-fuck for people, forcing them to confront that.
There’s an increasing demand that actors share the same sexual and gender identities as their characters. Some theatergoers may ask why a non-binary trans actor is playing a lesbian.
The only things I really know how to do are act and fuck. Do you cast my role with an authentic dyke who doesn’t have the acting chops? Is it more important to give a lesbian the opportunity? Honestly, I asked myself similar questions: Should this role go to a more marginalized version of myself? Should it go to a butch person of color? I was told that this thinking negates the sisterhood of queerness. Besides, I didn’t take my first testosterone shot until I was 38, and at that point I’d been socialized as a dyke.
So you have lesbian street cred.
I was using different language before I did Young Jean Lee’s Untitled Feminist Show in 2012. I had to be naked on stage without being able to speak, and as soon as people saw my body, I had no agency. After that, I didn’t want to publicly identify as a “she,” but I’ve never had the desire to identify as a “he" either. I’ve been vocal about not changing my name, because my name got me to where I am.
You’re often asked in interviews about opportunities and challenges for trans performers. Are you comfortable being a spokesperson for the trans theater community?
I don’t think of myself as a spokesperson for anything. I’m just Becca, who has a lot of opinions and a voice to share them. We live in a world where people like me are invisible, but I’m a fucking narcissist who wants to be seen and heard.
Hurricane Diane runs through March 24 at New York Theatre Workshop in New York.