In The Tall Grass
Bishop Arts Theatre Center, Dallas, USA, 2017
Irma P. Hall
The darkened stage fills with people and a stark video of familiar Dallas cityscapes flashes across the timbered backdrop of skyscraper shapes on Rodney Dobbs’ striking set design. Protesters carrying signs reading “Trans Lives Matter” and “Black Lives Matter” shout their message to promote transgender empowerment and peace in a society which has become increasingly violent toward them. A slender black woman (elegant transgender actress Mieko Hicks) steps forward and says simply, “We need to find a way to protect ourselves and each other.” The actor is speaking the exact words of the woman she is portraying in the world premiere of a gritty, revealing work at Bishop Arts Theatre Center.
In August of 2015 in a field of tall weeds and grasses off Riverside Drive close to the Dallas Medical District, local authorities found a rotting body. The Dallas Police Department put out a description and asked for help in identify the murder victim. After many weeks, the woman was finally identified as 22-year-old Shade Schuler, a transgender woman of color.
British playwright Paul Kalburgi had just moved to Dallas from London with his husband, who was transferred to Texas through his job. Kalburgi followed the murder in the press and began researching the growing national crisis of transgender women of color falling victim to violence, abuse, discrimination and murder. Shade was the 13th transgender woman killed in 2015 in the U.S. His new friends in the local LGBT community knew little of their trans allies and advocates, so the playwright decided to document his ongoing research in a work of verbatim theater, a play constructed exclusively from the exact words spoken by people interviewed on the topic. The result is In the Tall Grass, a work which began as a reading at the South Dallas Cultural Center in May 2016. BATC Artistic Director Teresa Coleman Wash invited Kalburgi to direct a full production of the play in this venue, just blocks away from his first interview, during LGBT Pride Week.
According to the program notes, the 125-minute play compresses two years of research, over 40 interviews, plus 25 hours of recordings. The show is performed by seven actors, including two transgender actresses, playing more than 70 characters, each word and pause a faithful reproduction of the tapes. The result is a fascinating and immersive evening filled with voices that demand to be heard speaking of the brave choices and dangerous lifestyle that fall to trans women of color, who are often disowned by their own families, unable to find work, and end up hooked on drugs and prostituting their bodies to simply survive.
The first act is filled with the poignant voices of the people who knew the murdered girl because they were working the same mean streets. They tell us Shade was just starting the transition process through “a couple of shots,” daring in her dress, drug addicted, homeless and too eager for love to be cautious. One woman recalls telling Shade, “As a trans woman you got to be careful the cars you jump into.”
The dead woman’s brother comes forward, grieving and ashamed that other members of his family had cast his trans sister aside. He appears at regular intervals, speaking of Shade’s precarious life, his eyes filling with tears as he recalls taking her for a burger when she phoned to say she was hungry and had no place to go.
A preacher proclaims, “They’re prostitutes pretending to be women and they’re paying the price for their sins. Another man snarls and says, “If a trans woman has sex with a straight man, she deserves to die.” Shocking and disgusting enough, but then the reporter steps forward to inform us that “you can legally murder a trans person in 48 states.” Horrible.
Through it all, we hear the voice of a journalist named Doug, played by Neil Rogers, an amalgam of the playwright and a Dallas reporter who covered Shade’s story. Doug asks hard questions of the police, who are sometimes accused of soliciting sex with trans women as an option for getting hauled in for prostitution. He listens with sympathetic intentness to the many voices in the transgender community. All the actors step in and out of their many roles and onstage costume changes with conviction and confidence, only occasionally missing a pronoun or a cue on opening weekend. Cast members are Mieko Hicks, Kyndra Mack, Neil Rogers, LaMar Roheem Staton, Sheila D. Rose, Michael Salimitari and Shannon Walker, who is a transgender activist.
and jagged with yellow police tape in the foreground. Here, Rev. Jeff background,Dr. Jeff Hood and played by Salimitari—says, “Shade believed God created her that way,” and urges his audiences to “push back against normative stereotypes” of gender and race. He leads the play’s most dramatic and touching scene in the gathering of trans activists to the field where Shade’s body was dumped. Scott Davis’s dramatic lighting flashes a video of tall grass prairie strung with electric utility lines in the There is kindness in the lives of these women. Rev. Jeff—based on interviews with Dallas activist and priest Rev. bring his chalice and bread and reaches down and touches the sticky grass, “the black spot in the shape of a body.” The true man of the faith is moved to say, “What you have done to the least of these, you have done to me.” It’s a riveting moment in a play that brings the darker raw experiences of poor transgender women of color to light in a vital, gritty platform.
theater with a powerful insight into the lives of the trials of people with the courage to simply be themselves in the face of ignorance and bigotry. Names of transgender women who have been killed since the play went into production are printed in the program and read aloud by the cast and audience in a moving memorial to their sisters who have died from the ignorance and evil of hate and fear. The rhythm of the names, some touchingly playful inventions, feels like prayer, and we leave the May knowledge and justice prevail, and thanks to BATC for the platform.
NORTH DALLAS GAZZETTE
Addressing an issue that has been widely ignored by the general public, In the Tall Grass – a verbatim play constructed from interviews conducted by playwright, Paul Kalburgi, with those directly involved with the events depicted in the production – attempts to illustrate the despairing reality of the violence and neglect transgender women of color face throughout their lives.
The play focuses on the murder of Shade Schuler – a young black trans woman whose body was dumped in a field close to Dallas’ Medical District. Its use of verbatim dialogue leaves this production unpolished and provocative – leaving no uncomfortable stone unturned.
Bold performances by Mieko Hicks as trans woman and fountain of wisdom; Letitia, and Lamar Roheem Staton as Schuler’s heartbroken and outraged brother; Josh, bring life to the weighted emotional dialogue.
In the Tall Grass dives headfirst into the precarious world many trans women of color find themselves in – often forced into prostitution and dangerous situations that generally put them at risk of violence and even death with a law enforcement community that all too often views them with suspicion rather than compassion.
The play follows the journey of Doug – a character seemingly based on Kalburgi himself – as he speaks with Schuler’s friends, family and other trans activists as they depict a world so many here in Dallas and around the country are completely ignorant of.
As with any production rooted in such an emotionally potent topic, the temptation to veer into sentimentality is evident but generally avoided. While the first act almost exclusively focuses on Schuler’s murder and the Dallas trans community’s frustration with lagging police response, the second act jumps between Schuler’s story and the effort by trans woman Tracee McDaniel to be successfully appointed to the Atlanta Citizen Review Board.
In the Tall Grass is not only well written, produced, and performed – it is much needed. If Kalburgi’s intention is to bring attention and focus to the lives so often casually discarded simply because they are different, he succeeds.
Along the spectrum of queer identity (LGBTQ) transgendered women are perhaps the most marginalized, the most persecuted. And among those, African American women. This demographic comprises the premise of In The Tall Grass, currently playing at The Bishop Arts Theatre Center in Oak Cliff. Describing it as a “verbatim play,” playwright Paul Kalburgi conducted inquiries, regarding the murder of Shade Schuler; an MTF whose body was found dumped in Dallas. Using a similar methodology to The Laramie Project, Kalburgi went into the field, interviewing cops, friends, family, neighbors and anybody else impacted by the death of this spirited, radiant lady. All the dialogue from In The Tall Grass was constructed from the testimony of actual persons.
In The Tall Grass reveals many details about what it means to live on the fringes of society. Because women transgenders often find it difficult to find legitimate work, desperation can force them to turn to sex work or drug trade. For some reason, their sex clients seem to be among the most violent and unstable. Many are ostracized by their own families. Blackmailed into trading sexual favors to avoid abuse by the police. All these factors combine to diminish their self-esteem and contribute to their sense of isolation and pain. Consider how profoundly cultural attitudes can influence members of the queer community. How not so very long ago, the message that gays and lesbians got, in a thousand variations, was how unwelcome and contemptible they were. We are gradually moving away from that (though not completely out of the woods) but those who question their birth gender, too often remain at the bottom of the heap. Without means to support themselves, they must put themselves at risk, daily. Sometimes just by stepping outside the front door. That is, if they aren’t homeless.
Kalburgi and his impressive cast (Miecko Hicks, Kyndra Mack, Neil Rogers, LaMar Roheem Staton, Sheila D. Rose, Michael Salimitari, Shannon Walker) navigate this emotional, heart-breaking, infuriating and discouraging material with precision, compassion, courage and humanity. One particular line that emerged from this powerful script was how mysterious and complex gender is. At their core, maleness, femaleness are enigmatic, beyond the trappings, roles and archetypes society imposes on them. This is rarely discussed or even articulated, but it resonates with every one of us. No matter who we love, or make love to. Perhaps because women transgenders challenge culture in ways not always easy to conceal, they become targets for all our ugly feelings and doubts and disappointments. Whatever the explanation, Paul Kalburgi, his cast and crew, have brought keen insight into this widely misconstrued and sorely neglected issue.