Toxic masculinity. The buzzy term may have only permeated the zeitgeist in recent years, but the issue has existed since the dawn of Adam. MJ Kaufman, who wrote Masculinity Max, about a recently transitioned man, explores the pressure to exert male dominance, even when a person isn’t cisgender.
The play, which airs June 27 at 7PM ET on Playbill.com/PridePlays as part of the Pride Plays Festival primetime programming, begins with Max on a date with Sensitive Guy. Despite his insistence, sensitivity is not this date's defining characteristic. Instead, he diminishes Max's transition experience to "switching teams" and asks about Max's body in relation to sexual preferences—"Cuz you still got original plumbing right?" the date reasons for his questioning.
A ceremony of sorts that officially inducts Max as a man in the family follows this disaster of a romantic endeavor. The gesture—in which Max receives his very own Narwhal team hat—takes place ahead of the annual watching of a stereotypical masculine American tradition: the Super Bowl.
“I chose football because I think the rituals speak to a particular flavor of American masculinity,” says Kaufman.
In the beginning of the play, Max seems on the outside of that flavor. For example, while sitting in their loungers, the men in the room drink beer, curse at the TV, and asks questions of him like “What’s the right way to get a girl to go home with ya?” based on the fact that he was assigned female at birth. Max tries to explain the he never felt like a woman, but this falls on deaf ears.
As the story continues—and despite his assurances to his friend and roommate Tamila, a trans woman of color, that he won’t become “one of those guys”—Max finds himself more privy to that traditional manifestation of masculinity and vulnerable to temptations only gender privilege provides, like new job opportunities and male companionship.
“I was interested in how people become socialized into masculinity, both trans and cis,” says Kaufman. “I was interested in the incentive for trans men to participate in misogyny in order to pass. Also, I was interested in the question of passing and what kind of behavior makes someone believably male and to whom.”
As they investigate gender, Kaufman and director Will Davis balance the tonal and social depth of the piece with comedy that borders on farce.
“[Will and I] met years ago in the cornfields of Indiana at New Harmony Project and felt instantly connected,” says Kaufman of their collaboration. “I so love the joy in Will’s rehearsal rooms—it infuses every element of his work. We share creative questions about trans-masculinity and the performance of gender, but there's an aesthetic affinity, too.”
Presented as a mainstage live stream during Pride Plays, Kaufman is excited to unite queer artists and audiences. “This spring has been so challenging and so inspiring and I cherish any way we can bring people together,” they says.
Even during shutdowns due to COVID-19, Kaufman’s creativity is up and running. Up next for the playwright: a play about cavemen, an audio piece about their dog, a movie about a non-binary teen, and a short story about an app that lets you date across time periods. Masculinity Max is just the first of Kaufman's eye-opening works to come.
Masculinity Max is part of the 2020 Pride Plays festival, produced by Michael Urie and Doug Nevin with festival direction by Nick Mayo. This year’s festival includes the previous streams of Donja R. Love’s one in two and Brave Smiles...Another Lesbian Tragedy by The Five Lesbian Brothers and The Men From the Boys by Mart Crowley on June 26. The festival caps off with the one-night-only Playbill Pride Spectacular concert June 28 at 8PM ET. All programming airs as benefit performances to support Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, and Masculinity Max features matching sponsor RXR Realty, which will match your donations dollar for dollar up to $7,500. Click the button below to donate.