On Monday the Donmar Warehouse, Birmingham Repertory Theatre, Landmark Productions and Galway International Arts Festival announced casting for their upcoming touring co-production of Breakfast on Pluto, an adaptation of 1998 novel about a transgender woman named Pussy. Pussy’s story is a heart-wrenching narrative of a trans woman trying to find safety and community while being subject to horrific violence by those around her. Who was cast to play such a sensitive, powerful and important role? Why, cisgender man Fra Fee, of course.
Similarly, the UK adaptation of the Bring it On: The Musical recently cast Ayden Morgan, another cisgender man, to play trans woman character La Cienega. Euan Morton played Hedwig in Hedwig and the Angry Inch musical; Eddie Redmayne was Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl; Jonny Beauchamp was Angelique in Penny Dreadful; Jeffrey Tambor was Maura in Transparent, and the list goes on. There seems to be no shortage of roles for cis men who want to try on trans womanhood.
We don’t limit the casting for Hamlet to defected Danish princes with existential angst, so why should we care about someone playing a role that isn’t their identity? Surely acting is just pretending to be something you’re not, right?
The problem is we don’t live in a world where everyone can play any character, we live in a world where cisgender and able-bodied white people can play any character. When someone who isn’t white, or cis, or able-bodied is cast, they are often met with abuse and prejudice. For example, when biracial actor Zendaya was cast to play Mary Jane in the 2017 film Spider-Man: Homecoming she was met with cries of ‘blackwashing’ by certain Spiderman fans, and black actor Leslie Jones had to leave Twitter after the backlash against her casting in the 2017 film Ghostbusters.
So, what’s the problem with Fra Fee playing Pussy? The problem is that trans people don’t get to tell their own stories. The social media backlash against casting choices like this shows that audiences are asking for a level of authentic queer representation that they’re not being given. You have to wonder why major theatres keep making these casting mistakes despite repeated social media backlashes; it suggests that directors and casting professionals are out of step with their audiences, and haven’t yet caught up with contemporary nuances of identity politics and diverse casting.
The 2005 film adaptation of Breakfast on Pluto starred Cillian Murphy to wide critical acclaim – this production seems to have cast Fra Fee on the assumption that the politics of Pussy’s casting have not progressed in the past fifteen years. Patrick McCabe, the author of the original novel Breakfast on Pluto, left Pussy’s identity ambiguous; he never explicitly described Pussy as a trans woman. Pussy has become trans through her resonance with the trans community, who have historically been starved of mainstream stories that represent them.
This production seems stuck between casting Pussy as a cis male drag queen, as many of the original readers of McCabe’s 1998 book interpreted her, or casting Pussy as a trans woman, as she has since been interpreted by the queer and trans community. The Donmar has responded to the outcry that followed the decision to cast Fra Fee by releasing a statement, claiming that it ‘conducted a wide search for the lead’ and apparently could not find a suitable trans actor. It added that we ‘are looking to amplify and celebrate trans voices in other ways as part of the production’. This commitment to find a trans actor is doubtful when one considers that the producers did not contact Outbox Theatre, a well-established company that runs trans acting courses [and which is writing an open letter in collaboration with The Queer House and LGBTQ Arts Review]. But at the same time, this production clearly does recognise the story’s importance to the trans community; it hired trans actress Rebecca Root as a consultant on the production, and offered the role of Pussy’s mother to trans actress Kate O’Donnell, who subsequently turned the role down after learning about Fee’s casting.
As O’Donnell’s departure from the production shows, the crux of the problem is that gestures towards trans inclusion are undone by casting a cis man as a Pussy. This is a character who, to modern eyes, reads as a trans woman. By casting a cis man in this central role, the production tacitly endorses the transphobic talking point that trans women are men. To cast a cis man in this role is to say trans womanhood is just clothes, makeup, and a wig layered on top of a man. It does a fundamental disservice to trans women who have fought to be recognised as the women they are. I wonder how many cis people will laugh at Fee’s performance as a man-in-a-dress joke, I wonder how any transphobes seeing the show will have their worldview reaffirmed rather than challenged, I wonder how safe a trans woman will be using the women’s toilets during the show’s run. I wonder how the theatres this show tours to will truly ‘celebrate trans voices’ while featuring a cis man performing in a trans role.
Trans casting is deeply political. In 2019 alone, twenty-six transgender people were killed in the US. Of these, 91% were black trans women. In the UK, two in five trans people have experienced a hate crime according to a 2018 report by Stonewall. Trans women’s lives are continuously under threat when they are caricatured into men in dresses. Casting decisions such as the ones for Breakfast on Pluto and Bring it On: The Musical don’t happen in a cultural vacuum, they rely on and reinforce the dehumanisation of trans women. The politics of casting is rapidly changing – casting agents and directors can no longer be ignorant of how roles change with time. As the demand for more mainstream authentic trans representation grows, theatres will have to invest in inclusive and diverse casting processes or risk being left behind.