People Who Make NY Special

Becca Blackwell Makes Their Own Identity

The incomparable downtown performer talks love, theater, and trans ambiguity.

Photo by Stefano Giovannini

Theater is all about illusion: actors pretending to be other people, twisty plots accepted as real, and audiences suspending their disbelief. But when it comes to gender, stage folks can be surprisingly literal-minded. Some playwrights’ estates refuse to allow gender-flipped casting. Nine out of 10 Hamlets are bound to be male. And what about trans actors? Shouldn’t a trans woman or trans man get the same consideration for a role that cis female and cis male performers get? Yup, it’s a brave new world—and Becca Blackwell is at the center of it.

The puckish downtown charmer, who prefers the pronouns “they” and “their,” has been appearing in work by the most daring experimental artists—writer-directors Tina Satter, Young Jean Lee, and Richard Maxwell—for years. Now Blackwell is making their own opportunity with They, Themself and Schmerm, a solo piece, at Joe’s Pub on Thursday, February 22. Mixing autobiography, raunchy stand-up, and playful audience participation, Schmerm (the nonsense word a flustered person makes trying to find the right pronoun for a trans person) is a brilliant and (sorry) ballsy mashup of pee jokes, lesbian humor, family tragedy, and Blackwell’s unique, irreverent take on trans life. Theater expert David Cote chatted with the performer over beers at Rudy’s, the scruffy Hell’s Kitchen dive.

becca blackwell
Photo by Stefano Giovannini

What Should We Do?!: You’ve been doing They, Themself and Schmerm for a couple of years now. How do you feel after performing it?
Becca Blackwell: Exhausted and full of love. But also: Give me a drink. I wanna hide.

WSWD: Because you expose yourself?
Blackwell: I tell of really dark, intimate things inside myself, the things that none of us want to admit. I talk about how my mom died right around when my partner, Erin Markey, and I were doing A Ride on the Irish Cream. I had to choose between whether I wanted to go back to New York and have the show open on time, or be with her when she died. I didn’t know what the right choice was. Talking about grappling with gender and identity. And asking un-PC stuff like, “Do I even wanna be a man, and what does ‘man’ mean?” I don’t think men are the most nuanced emotionally, and yet they have power. Then there’s a part where I go into the audience and find a man who I can have an intimate, vulnerable moment with.

WSWD: You sit on his lap! It’s equally sweet and aggressive.
Blackwell: It’s hard to do, because it’s creating a safe space for this person I picked, this man. For men to be vulnerable—especially in public—is really challenging, and it can be easily made fun of because it’s like he’s putting on women’s clothing. I want to strip that narrative.

WSWD: The narrative of binary gender identity?
Blackwell: Yes. And it’s hard because I always say, I wasn’t strong enough to be a masculine woman in the world, because that’s the most invisible person. There’s probably more trans representation in the entertainment industry than there is representation of masculine lesbians. Because we want people to fit into the narrative of, “This is a man, and you identify as a man, and this is what men do,” and “This is what a woman does, etc.”

WSWD: The stereotypes.
Blackwell: Even if you transition, you expect those people to fit neatly in the boxes. And the representations of a lot of trans women are attractive: Janet Mock. Laverne Cox. These are beautiful women. Who doesn’t love a gorgeous woman? But when there’s ambiguity, or you’re not quite fully one or the other, that’s where everyone gets like: ay-yi-yi! But I will say that, since taking testosterone, I’ve gotten more mileage out of pussy with a mustache.

becca blackwell
Photo by Stefano Giovannini

WSWD: More mileage?
Blackwell: More acting work.

WSWD: Oh, I thought you meant dating.
Blackwell:  Yeah, I’ve never had a problem with that. Men or women.

WSWD: The script for They, Themself and Schmerm is one of the filthiest and funniest things I’ve read in a long time. Bathroom humor galore.
Blackwell: I try to cater to everyone’s base needs. I did an excerpt for a bunch of kids at a Democracy Prep high school in Harlem, and they were dying. When I talked about how women don’t fart in the bathroom, they were crying and laughing, like, “That’s so true.”

WSWD: Well, comedy is about embarrassing bodily functions.
Blackwell: Yeah, and how silly the body is, how we protect it, how we’re always hiding. You wanna find a lover you can fart around, while at the same time be sexy.

WSWD: In the show you mention that you were adopted. What did growing up adopted mean to you?
Blackwell: My mom told me I was adopted when I was 3, and said that as soon as I got it, she saw me go, “Oh.” I clicked off, a little bit of detachment. I physically don’t look like anyone in my family. They’re all olive toned, with dark hair, and I’m pink and orange-headed. You always wonder: Is there someone out there who acts like me? Do I have gestures like my mother or father, or do I have gay parents? Is there some way that my birth father talks like I do? Do my hands look like his? My nose?

WSWD: How did being adopted and being trans interact?
Blackwell: My mom thought that I was gay. I never told her I was trans. I think she figured stuff out. She had dementia in the last few years of her life. When I would visit her, she would be like, “My…son?” Weirdly confused, but it’s Becca. It was hard for her to deal with my being queer, and I’ve never really come out to my family and been like, “I’m transgender.” I just slowly started looking more and more like a man. But I don’t insist on someone calling me “he.” All of a sudden, my brother referred to me as his brother. Personally speaking—this isn’t every trans story—I was his sister, and I was their daughter; that’s how I was raised. And I was a tomboy, and a masculine person inside of that. 

WSWD: You mentioned taking testosterone. I have to ask: Why would anyone want to go bald…like me?!
Blackwell: I take it every two weeks, a pretty low dose. There is an element of not wanting to turn into a werewolf and go bald. I do know it increased my horniness insanely. My porn went from massage porn to like: Bang! Bang! Twenty dicks! You’re like, “What the fuck is wrong with me?!”

WSWD: Yikes.
Blackwell: There are side effects. It’s a lot for the body to process. You’re fucking with your endocrine system. Most of the guys I know who took testosterone from a younger age, who are now in their 40s, had to get hysterectomies because their uteri and ovaries became atrophied. Then there are all the secondary sexual characteristics: facial hair, hair loss, hair gain.

WSWD: Ear hair, nose hair?
Blackwell: Oh, yeah, all that. Why do men have to have nose hair? My partner was like, “OK, your eyebrows have taken on a pretty radical life of their own.”

WSWD: There’s been an increase in trans roles in New York theater in recent years: Hir, by Taylor Mac; a play called Charm that MCC produced; and Southern Comfort at the Public Theater. Is theater catching up with society?
Blackwell: I don’t know. It’s the same question you could have asked African-American actors in 2005.

becca blackwell
Photo Courtesy of Becca Blackwell

WSWD: About the state of black roles?
Blackwell: Right. There are some, but not everyone can have one. To have four trans roles, and there’s like 170,000 trans actors hungry for a role.

WSWD: You’re a Taoist and also a trans activist and feminist. How do these sides of you challenge each other? I mean, one is about acceptance, I assume, and the other is about causing change.
Blackwell: I don’t want to speak for Taoism, but for me, it’s very much: There are no accidents. Everything happens for a reason, and you find the good in spite of that. But light and dark exist together. And light and dark are many things. They’re the sun and the moon. They’re masculine and feminine. But even in the classic symbol itself, there is a white inside black, and then black inside white. It can’t ever be separated.

WSWD: So they complement each other.
Blackwell: I remember, when the Syrian war was happening and so many racially motivated shootings were in the news, over and over, I felt conflicted about what I was learning in this theology. I remember asking Grand Master Nan Lu something like, “How can I just sit here and do this practice? Look what’s happening in Syria.” And he looked at me and was like, “What are you going to do about Syria?” And there was this moment where I was like, “What am I going to do? Post something on Facebook?” He goes, “If you needed to be in Syria, you would be in Syria.” It clicked for me: We focus on a lot of things to get riled up about, instead of checking in on what’s going on here. In our bodies and our minds and our hearts. That is literally how everything can change: Sitting in yourself a little more, feeling this storm inside you, and showing compassion for yourself, love for yourself.

becca blackwell
Photo by Stefano Giovannini

WSWD: If we could plan your perfect day, what would it be?
Blackwell: I’d do my Qigong practice. Then I’d go work out with this guy, John Kirsten, at the CrossFit in Prospect Heights. After that, I’d have brunch. I always feel like I never have the money or time to have brunch in New York. Ideally, it would be spring or fall, because those are my favorite times in New York. At night, I would go see Bridget Everett, because that’s always a good show to see. I never get to see Sibyl Kempson’s stuff, like at the Whitney Museum.

Rapid Round!
Becca Blackwell’s Faves…in a NY Minute

New York City–themed movie?
The Warriors.

Favorite bar?
Greenpoint Tavern.

Go-to hamburger place?
Corner Bistro.

Theater venue?
Abrons Arts Center.

Museum or gallery?
Museum of Modern Art. Also, Museum of the Moving Image (I get high and play the video games).

Place for people-watching?
I love to stoop sit, but no one lets you. They kick you off the stoop.

Becca Blackwell: They, Themself and Schmerm
Joe’s Pub
425 Lafayette Street (between Astor Place and East 4th Street), NoHo
Thursday, February 22
9:30 p.m.
$12; $15 at the door

Read about more inspiring New Yorkers in the People Who Make NY Special column.