Notes, Not Chords

This Borderlands play on Zuni gender fluidity is more tell than show

A world premiere! How can one not be excited about that?

Borderlands Theater has opened its 2009-2010 season with Julie Jensen's brand-new play, She Was My Brother. The theater has dedicated its season to the theme "What's Under That Skirt? A Borderline Look at Gender," and right out of the gate, Jensen and Borderlands have given us a lot to think about.

The play—about the phenomenon of Native American "two-spirits," who have the physical attributes of one sex but identify with the other—was born in a workshop at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., in the summer of 2008, given a rehearsed reading at the Playwrights' Center in Minneapolis in the fall of 2008, and given staged readings earlier this year at Salt Lake Acting Company and at the Missoula Colony in Montana.

Borderlands is the first theater to give the play a full staging. Unfortunately, it's not quite ready for prime time.

Certainly, the idea that sparked the play is fascinating and worthy of dramatic exploration. Historically, among the Zunis and other Native Americans, the two-spirits assume the dress and work of their "soul"—the gender they identify with. Known as Lamana, they are not only accepted within their communities; they hold positions of leadership and command great respect.

This practice, of course, contrasts sharply with Western culture, and it's a fact about these native cultures that is not widely known.

Borderlands has given She Was My Brother an impressive production design and committed actors, but the play just isn't enough to carry an evening. And here's why: The script breaks the cardinal rule of playwriting, and of storytelling in general. It tells us what happens instead of showing us.

Loosely based on historic reality, the story involves a small team of ethnologists who have traveled to northwest New Mexico in the late 1800s to study the Zuni nation. The colonel, whom we never see, has become ill, and he and his wife, Tullis (Martie van der Voort), must return to Washington, D.C., to seek medical care, leaving young protégé Wilson behind.

Wilson, played by Brian Levario, struggles to survive on his own for several weeks, we are told, until he meets We-Wah (Kalani Queypo), a Zuni who introduces himself as Lamana. Wilson finds himself attracted to Lamana and to the Zuni culture. When Tullis returns, she is a bit shocked to see his transformation.

Plays, and all effective storytelling, are driven by conflict. They show us characters' struggles with others and within themselves. In She Was My Brother, real conflicts between the characters—as well as the broader conflict that would define and give meaning to the play—are difficult to identify. We are told about critical moments, or we simply see the evidence that something momentous has happened. We don't witness the process, and our connections with the characters and their story suffer.

After Wilson realizes that his love for Lamana is acceptable to the Zunis, he immerses himself in their culture. But we know this only because he exits one scene in Western dress and enters the next dressed in more Zuni-like garb. We don't see his transformation. How did he come to such a radical decision? What did it require of him? What obstacles did he face? How was Lamana involved? We want to know. We need to know. We want to be a part of the process.

Unfortunately, other plot elements are treated similarly.

Directed by Barclay Goldsmith, the actors approach their roles with heart. But their characters are defined more by what they report than what happens between them. This is a meager resource for actors to work with.

John Longhofer's set, a Zuni pueblo courtyard, is beautifully lit by Russell Stagg. Jim Klingenfus handles the sound effectively, and Kathy Hurst's costumes are fine—especially the getup for the ethnographer of the female persuasion.

Borderlands' commitment to the development and production of new plays is worth supporting. We admire that they have designated this a season to explore issues of gender and identity. But sometimes when you gamble, the payoff is not as great as you hope.

She Was My Brother hit notes, not chords. And while we can certainly praise and enjoy those notes, we would appreciate the chords even more.

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