5 Questions with Theatre-Maker Jasmine Joshua
Jasmine Joshua has been helming artistic reboots for years, as Artistic Director of Reboot Theatre Company. In the mix of identities as parent, spouse, writer, actor, theatre-maker, and more, they discovered in their early 30s the vocabulary to add another: a non-binary gender identity. On stage, whether in over-the-top drag getups or stripped-down autobiographical pieces, Reboot Theatre Company Artistic Director Jasmine Joshua has been an open book about their non-binary identity and experience.
NWT talked with Joshua about developing community and identity through their art, making new work with The 5th Avenue Theatre, and the rebooted Sweeney Todd opening next week.
Interview content is condensed and edited for clarity.
What was your experience like discovering your non-binary identity? And how did your arts contribute to your process of discovery?
I came out in the fall of 2017, at 33 years old. I had twin three-year-olds, I had a (seemingly) heterosexual marriage, and I was entrenched in a pretty heteronormative life. I actually discovered myself through Reboot, through my art. As an actor, I was always considered a shoo-in for pants roles, but I had no idea that it went deeper than that.
I’m going to sound old, but in MY day (wince) the concepts of “nonbinary” or “transmasculine” or “transfeminine” were not widely known. Being transgender was still a very binary option. You were a man or you were a woman. And I knew I wasn’t a man. So I guess that made me a woman? A masculine woman?
I always found myself drawn to drag queens, and I used to make jokes all the time that I felt like a man in drag, not really understanding the implications of that. The other part is that my gender isn’t connected to my sexuality, so I never considered myself bi or a lesbian, because I thought of myself as a woman, and as a woman I was not attracted to women. And there were no other kinds of people, right? Big surprise for me!
When I directed Private Lives for Reboot a few years ago, I knew that I wanted a trans man or a transmasculine person to play Elyot. (I mean, really, I wanted to play Elyot, but since I identified as a woman at the time, I didn’t go for it.) And when I started seeing these actors come in and I saw how they were and I felt my soul sort of vibrate, I knew something was up. That was in May 2017. After a sort of tortured summer of Am I? Aren’t I? Is this a midlife crisis?, I came out while I was in Deers at Annex. Being Deer helped me explore my gender in a way that wasn’t judged. I then discovered my drag persona, Harvey Gent. Drag was another way for me to play with gender in a way that was accepted and outside of the regular public eye.
You came out as non-binary to yourself fairly recently, but you’ve done so in a public way and been very open about your story. Why did you choose to be so open about your story? Has that affected your sense of community around you?
It’s a huge part of who I am to be out and open because I spent decades of my life in the closet on a technicality — I didn’t know there was a word to describe who I was. It sounds hubristic, but I want to be a beacon for other people. I want someone walking down the street to see me and say, “Hey … I get that. I get that vibe. What’s going on here?” I want someone to hear me say, “My pronouns are they/them” and then go, “Hmm. That’s interesting. I didn’t know you could do that. Maybe that’s me.” Because that’s what I needed. I needed the visibility, I needed the representation. I know it’s trite to say now, but REPRESENTATION MATTERS. It matters. It saves lives. It saved mine. I want to pay it forward.
Another thing that I want to say with my story is that you don’t have to nuke your life’s plans to live as a trans person. I’m not saying that it’s not hard and I acknowledge as a white person with a spouse who makes a decent living that I have a LOT of privilege. A lot. I am super grateful for that. But I want people to know that you can still get married and be trans. You can still be a parent and be trans. Those are not closed doors to you.
I’m working on a solo show right now, which will be presented through Scratch and directed by Eddie DeHais in late August. I did another iteration of it earlier this year at 18th and Union with MAP Theatre, and I was so touched by how many trans people came up to me and said, “Thank you for showing that it can be okay. Thank you for showing a trans person who has a loving partner. A trans person who has a family.” It strengthened my resolve to continue to tell my story, which, again, is a privileged story, but it is a positive trans story that I think is important to hear, especially for people who are in the closet and afraid.
Among all the big things happening in your life recently, you were selected for a big honor through The 5th Avenue Theatre. What’s happening with that?
I’m writing a musical right now with Alexei Cifrese and Heather Ragusa as a part of the First Draft Program at The 5th Avenue Theatre. The show is called Here and Their, and it’s about a person in their 30s who discovers they’re nonbinary (that’s where their similarity to me ends, I swear!) and has to figure out what that means.
Right now, we’re about 80% done with the script and we’ve written all of the music for Act I. We’ve got some rough sketches for all the songs in Act II, so that’s our next big task. But it’s getting close to being done! We’re hoping to do a Seattle reading in late summer before we workshop it in New York this fall.
As writers, one of our main rules was that we didn’t want it to be trans trauma porn. This is NOT to say that there isn’t trans trauma and that it should not be talked about (hopefully by trans people), but we wanted to put out a narrative about a trans person coming out where there is a happy ending. Not a neat and tidy ending necessarily, but to have our protagonist out and on the road to being a happy, fulfilled human being with a community and (some) family who love them. This is majorly important to us: we want representation in art where trans people are normal, boring, and happy. That’s the reality we want to create.
This is majorly important to us: we want representation in art where trans people are normal, boring, and happy. That’s the reality we want to create.
Speaking of creating reality — your theatre company upends old “realities” of theatre and reboots them. How has that developed over the past few seasons of the company?
Our mission has always been to produce new interpretations of established works through nontraditional casting, design, and methods yet to be discovered. But I think as we’ve gained momentum and found our footing in the Seattle theatre landscape, we’ve felt a little bolder with going beyond the nontraditional casting. Nontraditional casting is a default to us now — it’s no longer enough of a reboot. Now we want to say, “Okay, great, yes, but what else?”
Little Shop was a big show for us in a lot of ways. One of our goals, in addition to creating artistically fascinating and invigorating work, is to be a sustainable company. Folks are droppin’ like flies out there! We want Reboot to be a mainstay and a pillar of Seattle theatre, and in order to grow, we have to be mindful and consistent. But we also have to keep pushing the boundaries of what a reboot is. We’ve got some big announcements coming up, and we’ve got an incredible board and a community that loves us, so we’re excited for the next step.
Next up, the opening of Reboot’s Sweeney Todd is just a week away. How did this reboot come about, and what can audiences expect?
Julia Griffin, who is directing Sweeney Todd, was my director when I was in Swallow at Theater Schmeater about a year ago. I know her to be a very focused and intelligent director who really understands how to dig into a piece. She’s primarily worked in plays rather than musicals, and I thought that for a story-driven show like Sweeney, she would be the perfect person to lend a new eye to a warhorse of a show that has a very specific aesthetic. Few dare to mess with the conceit of Sweeney because we all know the lore. Julia doesn’t come with any of that baggage. I’m beyond excited to see her fresh take on it. It’s going to be set in modern times with a very hipster vibe.
[On this, director Julia Griffin notes that the reboot’s modern take will emphasize Sweeney Todd’s timeless themes: “obsession, mob mentality, perceived appearances (a la Instagram filters).”]
We managed to score Aimee Hong as our music director and she is extraordinarily talented, both as a musician and as someone who works with different kinds of voices. In our classic Reboot fashion, we’ve got all sorts of people playing all sorts of parts, and having someone at the musical helm who can help actors place melodies in their voice without hurting themselves is essential. We are really fortunate to have Aimee on the team. I’ve sat in on a few rehearsals, and the cast is having a helluva good time. I will say that this will probably be the funniest Sweeney Todd you’ve ever seen!
[And what does the art on the show’s promo poster signify?]
In terms of the poster, we have trans people in our cast — our Sweeney (Mandy Rose Nichols) and Pirelli (Vincent Milay) are both trans. Vincent, who was nominated for a Gregory Award last year for his performance in Little Shop, kindly allowed us to photograph his chest for the poster, but the main idea was mostly, “Wouldn’t it be super hipster and funny for someone to have chest tattoo of their favorite barber’s logo?” So we just put a fake tattoo on a person’s chest. It happens to be a trans man’s chest. But, really, it’s just a person’s chest. Perfectly normal, right?
Sweeney Todd runs 5/17 thru 6/1 at Slate Theatre in the International District. Tickets are $25, available here. Accessibility notes: restrooms are gendered and multi-stall; theatre and common areas are wheelchair accessible.
Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of NWTheatre.org.