A few weeks ago, my friend Brin Solomon posted a poll on their Twitter. Brin was in the second round of interviews for a new job, and they wanted opinions on whether or not wearing dark blue lipstick was “Risky.” The options: “yes – go drab” or “no – make out with dusk.”
I encouraged them to make out with the dusk. Any workplace where Brin couldn’t be unapologetically themself, I thought, was depriving itself of a wonderful, creative human being. Thirteen out of twenty respondents agreed with me. Brin posted a selfie the next day, lips bright azure. I didn’t know that their new workplace was National Sawdust, but when I found out they’d gotten the job, I was even more overjoyed.
Two summers ago, Brin drove across the country from L.A. to New York City to attend Tisch’s Graduate Musical Theatre Writing program. They recently finished their degree, and they’ll be presenting their original musical theater piece, Defiant, Majestic and Beautiful, in the Lounge at Dixon Place on July 10.
DMAB is a hybrid work of sorts. Developed as a project for a class called “Composer/Lyricist,” it’s a collection of musical vignettes themed around the experiences of trans women and transfeminine non-binary people. In its current incarnation, it includes four singers, and each singer takes on the role of a different character every time they appear. The characters’ stories turn on a rhyme from laugh-out-loud funny to arrestingly dark. In true Brin tradition, the title is a pun: DMAB, in queer parlance, means “designated male at birth.”
Brin wrote both the score and libretto. “I knew pretty much when I signed up for the class that I wanted to write songs about transfeminine people, because I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to be able to get all of the lyricists I’d be collaborating with to write about trans things. And if I don’t have an outlet for writing stuff about being transfeminine, I’m gonna be really unhappy, so I’m just gonna start doing it,” they explained by phone. “And here is where it has gone so far.”
And, Brin emphasized, the Dixon Place presentation is just one iteration of the piece. Anything could change in the future, pending future developments and work. “I just want to talk to a dozen transfeminine people and have an hour-long conversation about this, like ‘What are your thoughts and feelings? Tell me,’” they said. “That’s something I get to do very infrequently.”
NATIONAL SAWDUST LOG: You’ll hear one character sing about being forced to perform stereotypical sparkly ingenue femininity to convince a doctor that they’re really trans and deserving of medical treatment. There’s an older trans woman who fought for her rights to be recognized as a woman, and is very confused and frustrated with the new fluidity of gender in the trans community. There’s a quartet about whiskey. There’s a love song to salt. But there’s one thing that there aren’t any songs about.
BRIN SOLOMON: There aren’t any songs where the characters are figuring out they’re trans. I feel like there’s an over-representation of media about trans people, like, “How do you know you were trans! Are you really trans! How can you tell?” And it’s emphasized to a degree that feels invalidating at times. Like, the most interesting thing about trans people is figuring out that they’re trans, questioning if they’re trans. So I wanted to steer very clear of that. There are characters who are newly out as trans, and encountering things about being trans for the first time, like, “Oh, wow, that wasn’t what I expected!” Or, “Oh, that’s frustrating,” or exciting. There are also people on the flip side of that, like, “Oh wow, I’m dealing with this same shit I was dealing with forty years ago! I fucking hate this!” And people who are more in the moment, in the middle of their life, who are dealing with new discoveries about themselves.
There’s one character where… there’s a weird overlap. I don’t know whether statistically this is a meaningful weirdness, but in certain trans circles there’s a trope that points out the overlap between trans lesbians and Jewish anti-Zionists. Someone thinks they’re the only Jewish trans lesbian anti-Zionist, and discovers that no, in fact, there are so many others. And it sort of goes to a place of crisis in a very comedic way.”
What does “transfeminine” mean? Brin gives the 101 explanation:
Someone who was designated as male at birth, whose parents were like, “We have a boy now!” And that person grew up and was like, “Actually, I’m not a boy!” That’s the definition I’m using for this piece. There’s a 201 level caveat to that, but I’ll set that aside for now.
Four singers participate in the cycle. Rather than designating each character by voice part, one singer sings all the characters whose name starts with P, another all the characters whose names start with J, and so on and so forth. The names are more a “gift to the actor” than to the audience, Brin explained, but their names are important.
When I was thinking about how many actors should be involved in this, it’s one thing to do a monodrama for one person and piano, but having multiple singers opens up other possibilities. I knew I wanted to have more than one character and more than one singer, but I wanted to balance it with a certain degree of practicality. There are a lot of transfeminine performers in New York City or Los Angeles, but there are maybe fewer transfeminine performers in other parts of the world and the country. I would like this to be somewhat doable outside the famous hubs of transfeminine existence. Four feels like a good number. You can do a lot with four-part vocal harmony.
In terms of designating by character name, I’m a firm believer that all characters in a piece of theatre should have names. What I didn’t want to do…in Songs for a New World by Jason Robert Brown, there’s a character that’s “Man #1,” there’s a character that’s “Man #2,” there’s a character that’s “Woman #1,” and it’s tracked like that. My concern with that approach is that it can create a hierarchy, sometimes. It just feels weird to me every time I see it. I don’t want to be super prescriptive about the genders of the people who are going to be singing this. I don’t think we have a fully developed best practice for talking about this, but I don’t want to say “Only trans women can perform this cycle!” because I think there are a lot of experiences in there, and I don’t want to limit it to only being someone who’s comfortable being Woman 1, as opposed to “enby 1,” or whatever their preferred term for themselves is. And likewise on the flip side, I don’t want to use “nonbinary person 1, 2, 3, 4,” because that constrains which specific sub categories of gender I want doing this. Gender is too weird and complicated. I feel very strongly that only transfeminine people should sing these songs and be cast in this piece, but I don’t want to limit it beyond that. Going by characters names seemed like a way to sidestep that “what gender is this character?” question.
Later, Brin emailed:
“Specifically, a thing that I didn’t make explicit is the fact that these characters chose their names for themselves — so it’s not just a hint at like “What does it mean to have parents who named you ‘Penelope’ (eg)?” Instead, it’s “What does it say about you as a character that you would choose this name for yourself, out of all the possible names in the world?”
Laura Kaminsky’s opera As One, the libretto of which was co-written by a trans woman named Kimberly Reed, is probably the most widespread depiction of a trans person in opera. The opera has one character, Hannah, who is played by a baritone representing “Hannah Before,” and a mezzo-soprano representing “Hannah After.” Brin has certain frustrations with this way of representing trans-ness on stage.
Yeah. Yeah. Trans bodies and the voice. I have several background agendas with this piece that I’m not explicitly putting in the text, but I’m weaving into the structure. Part of that is an aggressive hostility to gendering vocal ranges. The vocal ranges for this piece range from countertenor to bass. And I’m like “That’s great! Let me just change these keys for you.” Because I want to assert point blank that all these vocal sounds can be feminine, and can belong to a woman. At the same time, I don’t want to be like, “And all trans people sound like this!” I want to operate in complete anarchy when it comes to the relationship between gender and vocal range. There’s a high voice, there’s a medium high voice, there’s a low voice…which is great for counterpoint. Hashtag, classical training!
On the importance of diverse casting:
The thing that I didn’t want to do is have a piece of trans art and be like, “Here are four white trans women! And it was written by a white trans person!” Yes, transmisogyny is a really nasty form of oppression and trans women, as a class, regardless of race, are marginalized. However, that does not mean that racism is not also a really large and nasty structural force, and people who are more than one thing and who are targeted by racialized transmisogyny – I’m using some of the language of intersectionality, and I’m not going to pretend any of this is original – transfeminine people of color have it significantly worse off than white trans people in many ways. As a white transfeminine person, I feel like I have a moral obligation to create roles specifically for trans POC and use my whiteness to, insofar as I’m going to be treated better because I’m white, use that better treatment and spread it around and lift other people with me, so it’s not like, “I got mine!” No, it’s not. I have a moral obligation to hire people of color, and if you want to do my work, you have to hire people of color. I don’t think it’s fair for me to succeed without working to bring other people with me.
Last question: why is there a love song to…salt?
Every cis person asks about that song! It’s not peak inside trans girl joke, but it’s a nod to an insider thing. One very common anti-androgen medication that a lot of transfeminine people take causes your body to lose sodium. As a result, folks who start taking that medication, a lot of people start developing salt cravings. They need more salt to keep up with it. It’s an inside joke among trans women – like the real marker of being a trans woman is drinking pickle juice. There’s a fantastic post on a recipe blog somewhere that’s like, “Cis allies: Give trans women your pickle juice!”
That’s one of those songs where I don’t care if cis people don’t get it. The rhymes are funny, it’s clever enough that hopefully they’ll be entertained by that, and the transfeminine people are going to lose their shit. I read that at a trans open-mic night, and I don’t want to brag, but it fucking brought down the house. And every cis person has been like, “This is clever, but I don’t understand it…” And I’m like, “That’s fine – the people who need to, do.”
Brin Solomon presents Defiant, Majestic, and Beautiful at Dixon Place, 161A Chrystie St., on July 10 at 7:30pm; dixonplace.org
Zoë Madonna is a writer based in Boston and the winner of the 2014 Rubin Prize in Music Criticism. Currently, she is on staff as a multi-genre music writer at the Boston Globe. She has also written for VAN Magazine, I Care If You Listen, Early Music America Magazine, and Q2 Music. When not writing, she can be found browsing Bandcamp, contra dancing, and playing the accordion.
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