S/He is Nancy Joe doesn’t shy away from the prickly matter of transitioning. Scissors loom large, as the spectre of corrective surgery raises itself. At one point the backdrop is splattered with paint — the peeling off of dried paint evocative of the intense moulting Joe has to undergo every day, with little respite.
This year’s ITFoK line-up included S/He is Nancy Joe, a stirring look at transsexualism, from Czech performer Miřenka Čechová. Billed as a docu-dance, it is relentless in the manner it broadcasts searing episodes from the life of a transsexual man, born a woman, but scrambling and fumbling on his way to acquiring the trappings of his own gender.
It is a solo performance that has moved audiences internationally before arriving at Kerala shores, where the throngs in attendance are arguably less inured to issues of gender ambiguity although Ms Čechová puts on a ‘sound and light’ show that certainly keeps them entertained. In a festival whose thematic focus has been ‘gender’, her work stands out like an island in a veritable sea of topical angst precipitated mainly by the violence (historical, recent and ongoing) against women, though some remarkable work has been exhibited from that vantage at ITFoK. Here, there is violence and blood, but the idea of masculinity is stripped away from boorishness and swagger and privilege, being instead the aspiration that brings inevitable closure to a very personal struggle.
Ms Čechová arrives on stage and peers out of broad-rimmed glasses, looking at us benevolently, almost in contrast to the manner in which we could be looking at her character — assessing him, reacting to his androgyny, attempting to box him into the right category or, more likely, the wrong one. As Nancy/Joe enters into his wordless spiel, large panels of an animated comic crop up quick and fast, filling the backdrop, and giving his gestures and emotions a prescient larger-than-life quality. Sometimes the images are direct — the pointing fingers of schoolboys who target a scared (but stubborn) Nancy in a tattered polka-dot frock. Sometimes, they’re illusory — Joe headed to the ladies’ room, but drawn inexorably to the men’s loo, as scores of little cherub-like penises swarm over him, their wings fluttering to the steady trickle of urine being passed from the ‘standing-up position’ so easily summoned by men. The panels are inked in but not colored (except for the incriminating red frock, which becomes a motif of oppression), and given how often Joe himself is part of the artwork, his animated self becomes a flesh-and-blood co-actor breathing down his neck, mocking at him, but also egging him on. There are no speech bubbles but an incoherent babble of hushed whispers provides the constant opprobrium that is dealt by society upon such conflicted souls. Later, the forbidding tenor of a female voiceover takes over, Nurse Ratched style, as she tries to clinically prise apart the very premise of gender dysphoria, her phrases looped (as in a remix) into a stream of oppressive invective. Some of the situations may seem predictable but they are far from clichéd as they still prop up the real-world narratives of transsexuals everywhere.
I was born as a girl. But I know for sure that it’s a mistake.
Like the niche art form of the graphic novel, Joe’s salvation lies in sub-culture genres. Against a backdrop of graffiti-strewn walls he immerses himself into the spirited hip-hop dance that provides the piece much of its compelling visual grammar. The musculature of urban dance — the ‘popping and locking’, mixed with the fluidity of classical ballet — feeds his gallant shadow-boxing. Even if his routine isn’t particularly subversive, the mangled concrete and broken pipes of the cityscape, much like his own disembowelment, fortifies this struggle to have the right body chiseled into place. He doesn’t necessarily appropriate a hyphenated identity informed by the angst (and politics) of alienation, his quest is simply to become a man.
S/He is Nancy Joe doesn’t shy away from the prickly matter of transitioning (another of ITFoK’s themes is ‘transition’, but never seen through as intimate a prism in other performances). Scissors loom large, as the spectre of corrective surgery raises itself. At one point the backdrop is splattered with paint — the peeling off of dried paint evocative of the intense moulting Joe has to undergo every day, with little respite. The piece avoids the nudity that many other shows have used lackadaisically at the festival — there are no gratitious glimpses of taped-down breasts or prosthetic genitalia to feed a voyeur’s gaze here. Instead, the sapping hormonal therapy (with its unending pill cycles) that accompanies surgery is illustrated to touching effect, to drill home the difficulties inherent to this process. For Joe, these purple pills of unwelcome ubiquity follow him everywhere. Raining down like drops of water, poring out of cabinets and shelves. Even the Mona Lisa in the Louvre turns purple. The despair can sometimes lead to crushing depression, even suicide. Finally, there is a scene with his epitaph on a tombstone, and the audience applauds what they presume is the customary ending to a cautionary tale but of course, this performance won’t end on that bleak note. Against the white noise of a dozen computer screens, emerge the affirming stories of other young transsexuals who appear to have beaten the odds. Youtube videos that carry these messages become beacons in the dark. Armed with such solidarity, Joe’s resources are immediately replenished. Ms Čechová ricochets back and forth between hope and despair and fills an empty canvas with the resilience and courage of human spirit, which is what makes S/He is Nancy Joe one of the best shows exhibited at the 2014 ITFoK festival.