There are no fantasy heroes in Mikki Gillette’s work. And hardly any glamour. “A person at a reading said, ‘I’m glad you aren’t just writing the noble transgender character,’” Gillette told the Mercury. “And inside I laughed out loud because that’s not what I would ever do.”
As a playwright, Gillette focuses on characters who are healing from transphobia. Sometimes they’re parsing microaggressions: daily, degrading insults born from both innocence and intention. In other moments, her characters reel from chilling, overt threats of sexual violence. But somehow, with Gillette behind the lines, the dialogue on stage flies quickly and with disarming candor.
Gillette’s first staged play, The Queers, is significant, not only for her skill and vision, but because it’s one of the only trans-written plays in Oregon that was also produced with an ensemble cast of transgender actors.
The Queers was originally meant to debut in January 2022. However, the surge of the Omicron COVID variant delayed the schedule, forcing a partial recast. While this was a setback, Gillette’s still says the production benefitted not only from a couple of extra months to rehearse, but from actors getting to share how they relate to her material.
“It’s a tricky thing,” Gillette said. “I don’t want to say it’s education, but you want to give people a glimpse into a community they might not see. At the same time, it’s fun to hear the actors talk about the messier sides of the community, and how they relate to [the script], how they’ve been there themselves.”
The Queers shares overlapping stories of five transgender and nonbinary people navigating a Portland-sized city, circa 2011.
Harper York plays Andrea, a transgender woman fresh from a divorce, after her wife leaves her for coming out. Dealing with disruption from her formerly cushy tech job life, Andrea joins a support group. She meets Lisa (Naomi Jackson), a teacher wrongfully accused of professional misconduct, and Ally (Juliet Mylan), a woman who tries and sometimes fails at ethical sluttiness with activist Smith (Kyran McCoy), and the boundaries set by Smith’s partner, Pim (Cosmo Reynolds).
Gillette has been open about the fact that The Queers is semi-autobiographical and based on her early experiences living openly as a transgender woman.
“It is an interesting time capsule, from before there was a lot of awareness around transgender people and the alienation they experience,” Gillette said.
In 2011, when Gillette was a substitute teacher, a group of local parents in Vancouver, Washington tried to have her fired for being transgender. Washington’s anti-discrimination law, which is similar to Oregon’s, protected her job.
“I felt like that period was so vivid to me, and my life’s a lot more stable now,” Gillette said. “I observe what changes in the news and how the culture seems to change, but I don’t feel like I could just update [The Queers] to 2022.”
Directed by Asae Dean of Salt and Sage Productions, The Queers opens March 11 as part of Fuse Theatre Ensemble’s Outwright Theatre Festival. Additionally, on March 8, the Transformation Theatre will host a virtual reading of Gillette’s romantic comedy They, Their, Theirs, which follows a budding teen romance at a queer youth center.
After The Queers concludes its run in April, Gillette will turn her focus to a biographical script, which she developed at Artists Repertory Theatre. Gillette’s American Girl is based on interviews with the family and loved ones of murdered Vancouver teen Nikki Kuhnhausen and depicts the tragedy of her death. Gillette said fans can anticipate a reading of American Girl at some point during this year's Outwright Festival, but the date hasn't been set yet.
“These are the stories I gravitate to. I can’t relate to the idea that someone would be perfect,” Gillette said. “I don’t think writing a story that shows a perfect transgender person is going to move anyone. To me, humanity is what draws people in, and lets them recognize themselves.”
Back Door Theater 4321 SE Hawthorne, Thurs-Sat, Mar 11-April 10, 7:30 pm, pay what you will (suggested $20), all ages, tickets here