Photos by Laurel Golio
Becca Blackwell was sitting at Cheryl’s Global Soul, a venerable soul food restaurant in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn. Blackwell, who is trans and uses they/them pronouns, had just left their CrossFit gym a few blocks away when, right outside, a man started talking to them.
“He was this real old-school New Yorker, Italian guy, ranting about the neighbourhood and how it changed, using all kinds of ‘whoa!’ words.” At the table, Blackwell transformed into character, imitating him: “‘I remember when the blanks and the blanks ran around here. You know who owns this building? A Jew. Man, they’re gonna rape us, those Jews. Then the market’s gonna crash.’”
An awestruck smile crept over Blackwell’s face. To this man, they had passed, not only as a straight, cis male, but also as a racist and anti-Semite. Like most queer New Yorkers of a certain age, the 40-something Blackwell has seen everything, heard everything, been called everything, and keeps their sanity intact with a twisted sense of humour. “And here I thought that Brooklyn had lost its old-school charm.”
Three days before, Blackwell had just finished an acclaimed run of the play Hurricane Diane at the New York Theatre Workshop, by playwright Madeleine George. The off-Broadway production introduced larger audiences to Blackwell’s acting skills ― their range, their magnetic stage presence, their uncanny ability to flip from humour to pathos in a second as if they have one of those comedy/tragedy masks in their back pocket.
In the play, Blackwell is Dionysus, coming out of hiding because he realises the earth is being destroyed. “If I don’t step in now there will be no humans left on Earth to worship me … It’s time for a comeback!” He lands in a Jersey suburb, takes the form of a butch lesbian landscaper named Diane and tries to reboot his Bacchanalia by enthralling four married, bored, upper-middle-class women.
“It’s a crazy role because I have to come out and be a demigod, but then, like most butches, I end up doing a lot of the listening,” Blackwell says. “So to make that happen, I have to come out really strong right at the start.”
George wrote the role with Blackwell in mind. “I had in mind the kind of unassuming individual in many-pocketed pants and a nothing-to-see-here haircut … who can mesmerise a straight woman with her level gaze and infinite competency in a way that the straight woman herself can’t quite identify,” says George. “And Becca was just the most obvious actor in New York to channel that kind of mojo.”
When George began writing the play in 2014, she knew that Blackwell was transitioning, and asked them if they were still interested in playing lesbians. “Becca wrote back right away, like, ‘I’LL PLAY LESBIANS FOREVER! Poop-emoji Poop-emoji Poop-emoji’ or something to that effect.”
“Playwrights of all genders should also be on the lookout for trans actors to collaborate with in parts that they might not have originally thought of as non-binary.”
The play premiered at Two River Theatre in Red Bank, New Jersey, where it was commissioned, in January 2017. Working with Blackwell deepened the character. “During the production process, I realised that of course the god is a many-gendered or no-gendered being, and the ‘Diane’ part of them is just the drag they’re walking around in on Earth right now. Working with Becca opened up this whole dimension of the character for me.”
For George, the process has been revelatory for her future projects. “Playwrights of all genders should also be on the lookout for trans actors to collaborate with in parts that they might not have originally thought of as non-binary.”
Trapped in modern heteronormative ideals of happiness, the female characters in Hurricane Diane often mention how they didn’t know if Diane is a man or a woman. According to George, some audiences were also trapped in stiff gender constructions; “Many couldn’t parse the complexity of either Diane’s or Becca’s gender, so they just decided they were male. I felt like those audience members who read Becca and their role as ‘male’ were getting only a fraction of the richness of the part and of Becca’s prismatic performance.”
Nevertheless, it was a triumphant run for both the play and Blackwell, giving them some well-deserved critical praise, though it hasn’t led (yet) to a flurry of offers for the actor.
Even now, during the dynamic awakening of trans representation in culture, Blackwell still causes casting confusion, despite their enormous talent. “I go to these auditions and will hear, ‘We meant non-binary’ or ‘We didn’t mean a man with a woman’s name.’ Basically, I took hormones and look like a man named Becca. I don’t even fit anything’s anything. I’m not even playing in the confines of a name.”
But Blackwell is undaunted. “I had to teach the theatre world how to deal with me. Now I have to teach the TV world how to deal with me.”
Blackwell grew up in Columbus Ohio, an adopted child with an older brother. They attended Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio, on a theatre scholarship but left in their third year. “I was living in my car, coming from a fucked-up home. I had two jobs dealing drugs.”
They were also never cast in any productions at school unless someone from New York City was in town as a guest teacher. So, in 1993, Blackwell began making the move there. “My first place was on Thompson and Bleecker. I remember looking at a studio above Life Cafe (where the musical Rent takes place) and was like ‘$600 for a studio?’ That’s crazy!”
The early ’90s was the advent of today’s LGBT visibility, but in terms of representation, Blackwell still didn’t fit in. “There was literally nothing. Not even a ‘friend next door.’”
To make ends meet, Blackwell worked as a bartender at lesbian watering holes like Meow Mix, the Cubbyhole and Crazy Nanny’s. “I would have to go out and get the cabs for the black chicks going uptown. I sold drugs too at some point. I was terrible at sex work because I didn’t suck dick.”
Blackwell kept their hand in the theatre world, working as a sound designer and engineer for several off and off-off Broadway productions. They worked at HB studios as a reader and assisted “master teacher” Uta Hagen in her 50th-anniversary show of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (starring Matthew Broderick and Mia Farrow).
By the late ’90s, Blackwell had found other artists expressing themselves outside of traditional theatre. They joined the traveling activist circus and theatre troupe Circus Amok, as well as the cast of Room for Cream, a live lesbian soap opera that appeared at La Mama from 2008 to 2010.
In 2013, Blackwell worked with playwright Young Jean Li and other performers (including alt-cabaret singer Lady Rizzo and burlesque star World Famous Bob) to create the groundbreaking Untitled Feminist Show, which toured Europe and the States.
“Becca’s very presence and participation can just break down the seriousness of the systems that are in place. That’s their magic.”
Blackwell also appeared in plays by the experimental theater creator Sibyl Kempson, including”Let Us Now Praise Susan Sontag and Lamb of God, both at Abrons Art Center in the Lower East Side. Kempson, who describes Blackwell as a “deeply grounded fire that’s been burning for centuries,” recalls one scene in Lamb of God in which Blackwell and the other actors repeated the word “salami” while tossing slices into the audience like frisbees.
“I took a photo of it and posted it on Facebook, to which Jay Wegman [Abron’s artistic director at the time] promptly commented ‘no food in the theatre,’” Kempson described by email. “But this is what happens. Becca’s very presence and participation can just break down the seriousness of the systems that are in place. That’s their magic … they are a natural disruptor.”
In 2010, Blackwell met performer and actor Erin Markey at a reading and they began a relationship. Markey introduced Blackwell to other performers working outside of theatre like Bridget Everett, Murray Hill and the performance artist Neal Medlyn. Markey and Blackwell collaborated creatively on many projects, which culminated in the 2016 musical A Ride on the Irish Cream, in which Markey is a young girl who has a love affair with her family’s “pontoon boat/horse,” played by Blackwell.
Two days before the show opened, Blackwell’s mother died. They had just been home with her but had returned to do the show. “That was the conundrum. Do I stay here when she takes her last breath?” Blackwell said. “I would have really left a whole production team fucked. It was a moment for me. I actually had no idea what I wanted. As a kid abused my whole life, I realised I do what everyone wants of me. That no one knows what’s best for me. I know what’s best for me.”
As Blackwell was discovering themself in the 2000s, trans identity at large was revolutionising. “There was a momentum. By 2006, all the lesbian bars were full of people with beards who were 5-foot-2,” Blackwell jokes.
They began taking testosterone in March 2013. Writer and director Silas Howard gave them their first shot. Still, getting testosterone is complicated, especially when you are on tour. Throughout 2013, Blackwell was on the road with ”Untitled Feminist Play,” going from Pittsburgh to Seattle to Berlin to Chicago. They found people in each town who could help them continue their monthly shots. “That’s when the community really comes in.”
And if one ever doubts the power of government to affect LGBT lives, look no further than new regulations in New York state that allowed Medicaid to pay for gender affirmation surgery starting in 2015.
In the summer of 2017, Blackwell had top surgery. “I could never do it if it cost 10 grand,” Blackwell says. “When Trump got elected I was like, ‘I’m doing this’ because I wasn’t sure what was going to happen next.”
Transitions are not TV makeovers, and finding who you really are is rarely pain-free. Blackwell is honest — both in their work and in conversation — about their jagged path toward discovering their authentic self. Often, they bring up the person they were in the ’90s and 2000s like they are surprised they are still here (“When I was driving the Circus Amok truck around, I was fucking people for money, blasted out of my mind”).
In their solo show, They, Themself and Shmerm, which premiered at the Wild Project in 2015 and has since appeared in many venues, Blackwell opens up about their transition, their body and their difficult youth in an approachable, heartfelt and unsanctimonious way. In one long, uncomfortably hilarious monologue, they describe visiting their dad in a West Virginia prison (he was incarcerated for a white-collar crime) with their brother and niece. For a complicated reason involving a dime, Becca is tasked with taking their niece to the women’s restroom at the prison — definitely not like an all-gender bathroom in a Brooklyn vegan restaurant. The scene should be required viewing for any supporter of an anti-transgender bathroom bill.
Then there’s the moment in They, Themself and Schmerm when Blackwell tells the audience they were sexually abused as a child. This is also declared in an approachable way, almost as an aside. You are watching someone who may still be grappling with their past but who will not allow it to consume their identity.
This ease with themself was hard-won. Blackwell came into their identity gradually. During the first decade of their life as a New Yorker, they had long, stunning red hair. “Had my hair long because I was trying to pass as a woman. As soon as I cut my hair in 2003, I was like, ‘There I am.’”
But it took another decade for them to transition. “I think I thought I was a bad feminist if I transitioned,” Blackwell says. “Like I should be trying to stay a bulldyke. I had all these political panics, but also body panics.”
In 2015, Blackwell began studying qi gong and Taoism with their teacher Grandmaster Nan Lu. They credit the work for restoring their health and giving them an inner responsibility during the transition process. “I picked my body, the time I wanted to be here. I picked my experiences. I pulled it to me. I am in full compliance.”
A new project of Blackwell’s is Snatch Adams, a send-up of straight, male late-night talk show hosts. Blackwell dons a costume of a giant, anatomically detailed vagina (created by Amanda Villalobos) and works the stage, spewing jokes, pee and sometimes babies. (Writer and performer Amanda Duarte plays Tainty McCracken, Adams’ Ed McMahon.)
“It’s like a ′Pee-wee’s Playhouse’ of genitals and STDs,” Blackwell explained. “Everyone’s always so curious about trans people and their genitals: ‘What’s going on down there?’ I wanted to just poke fun at the whole thing. None of us are full-blooded anything.”
Recently, at a popular lesbian night, Blackwell was confronted by another, more surprising moment of bigoted mistaken identity. “I was walking across the dance floor and I felt someone push my shoulder and say, ‘Get outta here white boy!’ What the fuck? You don’t know me. And even if I was a white boy, that’s what you are going to do? I went and told the organisers what happened.”
Blackwell looked both angry and full of sorrow. “Everyone who gets power is a dick. Your marginalisation doesn’t allow you to be that way. You are that thing you hate. The goal is to be your authentic self. We push against it even in our community.”
Blackwell didn’t dwell on this for too long. What exactly the Taoist teaching moment about this experience was is still to be determined, but they have things to do. The centuries-old fire needs to pull some experiences toward them that include some juicy acting roles.
“People will ask me how I got to where I am now,” they say. “I tell them I did it the old-fashioned way. By sticking around so long.”
This article is part of HuffPost’s Proud Out Loud project, which profiles the next generation of LGBTQ change-makers from around the world.