This season Bring It On: The Musical is giving Broadway a jolt of bonafide cheerleading cred, with impressive, high-stakes stunts that have audiences gasping. But while all that action is going on in the air, the musical is also making more subtle waves by introducing theatregoers to Broadway's very first transgender high school student.
Over the past 40 years New York theatre audiences have encountered the Cagelles of La Cage aux Folles and the girls of Priscilla, as well as transgendered rocker Hedwig and the biographical account of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf in I Am My Own Wife.
While some of these works have been bolder than others in terms of theatrical activism, each of the productions singles out gender-experimenting within their narratives, asking audiences point blank to address intolerance, or their own feelings on seeing life from a different angle, as Jerry Herman once put it. But Bring It On, which centers around a high school cheerleading cat fight royale, shuffles the transgender card into its deck of characters without forcing its hand.
"In creating a universe of characters, I always try to find as many differing perspectives as possible, because that's where comedy comes from most often," says Bring It On book writer Jeff Whitty, who earned a Tony Award for Avenue Q. The stage production is based on the film franchise of the same title, but utilizes a cast of new characters and a fresh plot for the stage incarnation, which launched a U.S. tour in Los Angeles last fall prior to its Broadway arrival.
Among the spunky, new high school characters is La Cienega, one of three black girls in a hip-hop dance crew at Jackson High, the urban school where Bring It On's blonde, apple-cheeked protagonist Campbell is transferred. Early in the musical's first act, Whitty introduces audiences to La Cienega, portrayed by actor Gregory Haney, without any fanfare. She strides onto stage with her crew as one of the girls. Although Haney's muscles may raise an eyebrow or two, no mention is made in the dialogue that she is transgender.
Whitty says he didn't want La Cienega's inclusion to become too saccharine in an "after-school special way," where the character is forced to explain herself, delivering a heavy-handed lesson. "In that case they become the other, they become a separate person, which allows an audience to put them in a box and keep them in a box," he says.
"When I thought that I wanted to have a transgender high school student, my next thought was, I just never want to really bring it up and never discuss it in the script. Then the audience can't see La Cienega as the other; they have to become her friend. That, more than anything, is how progress is made," he notes.
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