In the 2011 Off-Broadway revival of Rent, MJ Rodriguez was “just living me onstage,” she recalls. “It wasn’t like being a character. I was in character, of course, but I was also living me and telling my story through Angel.”
Though typically thought of as a drag queen, Angel Dumott Schunard was more “gender queer” or “gender fluid” in Rodriguez’s eyes. When Angel felt most herself, she was dressed to the nines in women’s clothing with full hair and makeup, and her friends addressed her as “her.” Same goes for Rodriguez, who was assigned male at birth, but felt female at heart.
“When that gate got lifted up,” she says, “and everyone saw me as Angel dressed up, I was like, ‘This is me. Now I’m about to serve y’all, so get ready! It’s going to be a ride!’”
Serve she did—receiving acclaim for her performance and the Clive Barnes Award months after making her Off-Broadway debut. Though she was living the dream onstage at New World Stages, offstage she felt incomplete.
“Every single time I came out of the stage [door], I felt like there was some part of me that was missing,” she explains from a coffee shop in midtown Manhattan, looking beautiful in blonde hair and more confident than ever before. Before getting into the nitty gritty of her transition and talking more about her involvement in the theatre community, she clarifies that she now identifies as a black transgender woman and goes by the pronouns of she and her.
As the emptiness progressed, “I started to look into [the transition process] more,” she continues, “because I knew deep down inside I’m putting on a smile for these wonderful people who see me backstage… I’m not putting it on just to put it on—it’s genuine—but deep down inside, I wish they could see me like the character that was up on that stage. Her hair and [clothes]… Just living. But I couldn’t. And, I’m not saying the company [made me feel like] that. It was me that was holding myself back because I felt like I had to fit into this mold of what people want to see.”
Rodriguez got into performing at age seven, the same age she began to pray about becoming a female. “Then I got into a stage of trying to be content with the person that I was betraying,” she says, until turning 14, when she came out to her parents as “bisexual/gay.”
Before talking about how her family took the transition, she proceeds by saying, “My mom is my biggest cheerleader.” It was she who paved Rodriguez’s way to Rent. She enrolled her child in the Summer Youth Performance Workshop at New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC), where at age 18, Rodriguez was asked to audition for the theatre’s production of Rent and landed the role of Angel.
“Fredi Walker-Browne [Rent’s original Joanne Jefferson] came to see the show, and we both found interest in each other,” says Rodriguez. “She had me do one of her readings, and then she told me, ‘You need to be seen for Angel in the upcoming Off-Broadway production,’ and I was like, ‘Are you kidding me? What? I just did this! This is crazy! I don’t even know if I’m going to succeed in this. I may not even get it.’ And she was like, ‘No, you need to audition.’ And then, after that, it just took off…”
Telsey + Company, the casting company that took off with the 1996 production of Rent and has cast hundreds of productions on and Off-Broadway since (including Hamilton), gave Rodriguez her break. It was “the biggest stepping stone in my life,” she says. Playing Angel was a dream from the moment she saw the 2005 film adaptation with her father and told him, “Dad, I want to play this role.” To which he replied, “In due time.”
At Rent, Rodriguez had friends and fans come who were changed by her performance—one woman, in particular, who just embraced Rodriguez in tears and said, “It was so moving. I thought that person up there was real.”
After Rent closed in September 2012, Rodriguez came to a decision to make it real. She went on hiatus from social media to start her mental transition and, two-and-a-half months ago, started hormone replacement therapy—nervous, she says, on the day she picked up her pills, but realizing soon thereafter that she made the right choice.
“I’ve always felt I was the same person,” she says. “There was never really any change; there was just evolving that had to take place. There was an enhancing that had to take place—mental enhancing, physical enhancing, all those things—but that was specifically for me, and I needed time for myself. I couldn’t put that in the public eye yet, because I wasn’t ready for the public eye to see it, so I had to take time to myself to figure a lot of things out. And, as you go through a transition, it’s not like, ‘Here are my boobs, and here is my butt!’ I have to think about all of this stuff. What is it going to entail? What am I going to go through? What are the chemical changes I’m going to go through? It’s a lot of stuff that you have to think about, and I took that time for myself to do my research to know what I wanted to do, and then I just [started] my journey.”
Rodriguez reemerged anew, complete with new headshots and a new outlook. “I feel amazing,” she says, but was faced with one challenge—telling her representation that she’s no longer going in to audition for male roles.
“I had sent them an email about three months ago. I was really scared,” she admits. “I didn’t know what they were going to think. To be quite honest, I was afraid that they would drop me, and I wouldn’t have had anyone to represent me, and I would be struggling again, but fortunately, after I sent the email, they said, ‘What? Are you kidding me? We love you.’ And they said, ‘It doesn’t matter. We still love you, and we don’t care.’ And things have been good moving forward.”
So good, in fact, that Rodriguez got in the room where it happens to be seen for Hamilton. After uploading a video in which she covers “Satisfied,” the show-stopping song in the first act for the character of Angelica Schuyler—and receiving massive response from friends and over 2,600 views—she attempted to get it in the hands of Hamilton’s casting team.
“I had finally gotten to a place of being comfortable, and with reaching that place, I also wanted to show that there are trans women out there who can do anything they can put their mind to,” she explains. “When I put the video out, yes, I wanted people to see it, of course. Everybody wants you to see a video that you put out, but I also wanted to advocate in a way and say, ‘Listen, ladies and boys! My trans brothers and sisters, y’all can get up there and put a video up, too.’ If the talent is there, they’re going to love it no matter what, and the responses and feedback were so great.
“Within a week or so, I got a call from my agents, and they said, ‘Telsey wants you to come in for Hamilton.’ And there it was. I don’t know how else to explain it. It just happened.”
She was called in to audition for the role of Peggy Schuyler/Maria Reynolds, originated on Broadway by cisgender female Jasmine Cephas Jones, and says it went “really, really well.”
Going in, “It was a little nerve-wracking,” she admits. “I was a little scared. Even though these people know me, I still haven’t seen them in a while, so I didn’t know how it was going to be received, but when I walked in there and received a hug from the casting [directors], it was just like old times when they first saw me. They eased my mind, and I knew right then and there they didn’t care about that. They didn’t care about [my gender] identity. They cared about what I brought to the table, and what I could possibly bring to the table.”
For Rodriguez, the transition in her career has been quite seamless. Aside from Angel, her resume is mostly filled with female or transgender roles, and she’s always had a voice with a strong and high belt (and an even higher falsetto).
“I’ve been getting calls for female and trans roles, hence Hamilton. That’s a cis female role, and a trans woman was called in for that, and I think that’s actually very, very important,” she says. “I feel like trans women need to be seen for more female roles, and trans men need to be seen for more cis male roles because it creates that comfortability…because, at some point, it can sometimes seem like a spectacle, and it can put us in a place of ‘We’re trending.’ I don’t want that.”
As far as Rodriguez’s personal journey, her family and friends have only shown support, her confidence has skyrocketed, her dating life has improved, and she feels it “her duty” to educate those in her life about being transgender.
“I haven’t had any problems,” she says, “but I am scared. Every day, I walk the streets with my head held high, but deep down inside, sometimes I’m like, ‘I just hope I can get through the day.’ I don’t want anybody bothering me. I don’t want anybody hurting me. And those are my biggest worries. I hate the term ‘passing,’ but I would say I’m one of the girls who are lucky enough to ‘pass.’ I don’t get as much problems when I’m walking down the street. Most of them do not know until I tell them…
“But, we have a long way to go. You can’t force anyone to understand anything that they don’t want to understand. I’m patient,” she adds. “To each his own.”
Michael Gioia is the Features Manager at Playbill.com. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.
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