5 Questions with Playwright Nelle Tankus

This week, Annex Theatre opens the world-premiere of Tenderness, an “anti-capitalist cyberpunk experience” by Seattle playwright Nelle Tankus. NWT talked with Tankus to learn more about her latest work, which runs through February 17, and the inspirations behind it. 

Interview content is condensed and edited for clarity.


How would you describe Tenderness? What’s the mood of the show, and what might people expect going in?

Adjectives I’d use to describe the show are chaotic, soft, absurd, humorous, hopeful, and a little bit horny. People might expect a post-apocalyptic style, but I think it’s safe to say that there’s no such thing as a post-apocalypse. Tenderness is an anti-capitalist cyberpunk experience for the end times, where friendship and care are the antidotes to capitalism.

While wealth redistribution isn’t the full focus in this play, it is certainly an element, because taking and redistributing the unearned wealth the rich have is necessary. But stopping there isn’t enough. What happens after the guillotine has come down and the rich have their wealth redistributed? That’s the juicy stuff.

How long has this script been in development, and what inspired it?

The first draft of this script began in April 2020 when I was developing the play after taking Young Jean Lee’s free playwriting class online. The first draft was only around 30 pages and centered around three femmes trying to remember the highway accident scene in Final Destination 2, and it had a different title.

‘Tenderness’ cast members Janet Holloway Thomas, Drew David Combs, and Somto Muo. Photo by Laura Johnston.

The draft being presented at Annex is the fifth version. I was inspired by a lot of disparate elements: queer trans community coming together during the height of the pandemic, dealing with a $14,000 debt to the state that wasn’t my fault but I was forced to pay back, the campy doomy queer sci-fi of Gregg Araki’s films Doom Generation and Nowhere.

Every draft prior to the Annex one showed wealth being redistributed from the ultra rich to the poor and working class, but I found that conceit to be unsatisfying because I don’t actually think it’s a radical idea that the ultra rich need to redistribute their wealth. What’s more difficult is practicing deep care and humanity when capitalism wants to isolate people and turn them cold. For me, that’s the biggest tension in the play, and the one I have the most emotional investment in. One of the biggest things I learned at the María Irene Fornés playwriting conference in 2021 is that my best work comes out when I write from an embodied place. This draft I wrote from softness and rage in equal measure.

How does this show speak to America at this moment?

Because community care is the antidote to capitalism. We’re all witnessing the fall of the American Empire. It’s been happening for a very long time at this point, but think about it this way: Americans are watching multiple genocides happening on our phones, half of us can’t afford rent or groceries, there’s still a pandemic going on, [Joe Biden] is bypassing Congress to send over a hundred million dollars of weapons [to Israel] yet can’t invest in trans healthcare or comprehensive education of all types or support reproductive rights, colonialism and capitalism are raising global temperatures at astronomic rates, and capitalist celebrities are telling us that it will “get better.” And this has been accumulating for decades.

I have found that the best antidote to capitalism, individualism and hopelessness is to be in community. When everything crumbles, we will (hopefully) have each other. I learned that from my family, I learned that from QTBIPOC feminists — Kai Cheng Thom and adrienne maree brown come to mind — and I’ve learned it from being in deep community with working class queer/trans folks for decades.

And the thing is, community care is messy. There is uncertainty, there is rupture, there is love, there is building deep relationships over many years. It isn’t perfect by any stretch. I think a lot of middle class white tenderqueers use the term “community” without actually doing the work to be a good friend, or policing each other’s actions because they can afford to be isolated. When I was writing this show, I had to come to terms with myself in some ways too. I had to ask myself hard questions too. Has my socialization made me cold without realizing? How do I have hope right now? Am I being received as a good friend? Do I love how I say I do?

What do you hope viewers walk out with?

I hope every person walks out of that theater and texts their friends to tell them that they love them.

Where does the inspiration for your characters come from? How are the characters in your head versus the ones you see on stage?

Every one of them is based on people I know, or have known, or wanted to know better. Unless they’re celebrities, in the case of Lemon Lymes, one of the antagonists, who is based on Grimes.

The characters in my head can be dense and complex or deeply shallow or archetypal, but they’re always filled out by the actors. That’s the beauty of theatre being collaborative: I literally can’t do it without the actors, director, designers, or theatre. They craft the play as much as I do.

Bonus question … You were just announced as the Literary Manager for Washington Ensemble Theatre. Congrats! What is a literary manager? What do you hope to bring to WET and Seattle stages in that role

Thank you! A literary manager is typically a person who reads and pitches plays to theater companies and helps craft their seasons. I’ve been bringing new freaky trans and/or femme plays from writers across the country and in Seattle to WET, so we’ll see what the future of that brings.

Tenderness opens Friday (2/9) (preview on 2/8), and runs through 2/17 at Annex Theatre on Capitol Hill. Tickets here. Accessibility notes: Restrooms are single-stall and gender-neutral. Theatre is reached only by significant stairs. Pay-what-you-choose and sliding scale tickets available for all performances. 

Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of