By Reid Nakamura
Trying to distill the journey of trans and non-binary people into a single three-act show is, to put it simply, impossible. But that’s exactly what the Trans Chorus of Los Angeles plans to do with its upcoming show, VOICES: The Trans Journey in III Acts.
Produced by the Los Angeles LGBT Center’s Lily Tomlin/Jane Wagner Cultural Arts Center, VOICES is the first event of the Tomlin/Wagner Center’s fall 2022 season and the first under the leadership of new its new artistic director.
Through a mix of songs, poetry, and spoken word, the show aims to let the audience experience the full emotional life of a trans person as they grow into their most authentic self. It’s an extension of the Trans Chorus’ broader mission as an organization, says Artistic Director Abdullah Rasheen Hall: “Changing the trans narrative from victim to victor.”
“All of the societal pressures outwardly, we’re showing that reflection in Act I,” Hall says. “Act II is becoming you, when you start to really self-actualize and affirm where you are. And then Act III is living victoriously.”
The show’s subtitle promises “The Trans Journey” in singular, but it’s the preceding plural that gets at the real heart of the show, in all caps: “VOICES.” The breadth and diversity of the show’s disparate performances—which draw from the experiences of the chorus members themselves—are the key to unlocking the truth of the transgender community and presenting a new narrative to the world, Hall says.
“It started off with me wanting to create a space to really showcase our vocal abilities, but as we developed the show over these last few months, it truly became Voices,” Hall says, carefully emphasizing the plural. “Stories, pictures, songs—some original written songs, some songs that take on a whole new life in the context of our show. It’s stories from our oldest members who are in their 70s to our youngest members in their early 20s.”
“I started out with this show being one thing, and it has transformed into something better than I could have fathomed,” Hall says.
One of the show’s most personal sections is a rendition of Stephen Sondheim’s “Children Will Listen,” featuring images of the chorus members from childhood.
“They’re opening up their hearts and sharing their vulnerability,” Hall says. “It’s hard to show pictures like that to a lot of people. A lot of trans and non-binary people choose to get rid of anything that reminded them of that binary existence. But we teach each other to celebrate that part of you. That was a part of you. It was the part of you that got you here. Don’t just throw away that part of your existence in becoming who you are now.”
Another section features a monologue about growing up non-binary and Asian in a predominantly white and very conservative part of the country. “You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and you will be triggered. You will be triggered with this,” Hall warns. “But they’re speaking their truth.”
The act of making one’s voice heard can feel vulnerable for just about anyone, but for a trans person, it can often be particularly fraught. The Trans Chorus leans into the discomfort by embracing traditional vocal classifications—soprano, tenor, baritone, etc.—while staunchly rejecting the notion that the categories should be decided by gender.
“Every voice is a voice,” Hall says. “We have some wonderful women that are bass-baritones. We have some wonderful women that are sopranos, even though I was told a trans woman physiologically could not be a soprano. I was like, that’s stupid… We teach our choristers to appreciate their voice where it is.”
It’s those voices and their singers—wherever they may be—that come together on stage to share the trans journey. Not just in this one show, but in every performance the Trans Chorus gives.
“We’ve done so many amazing things as a group, and that’s because we just keep putting ourselves out there,” Hall says, listing off appearances from music videos and a Pantene holiday commercial to CNN and the Biden-Harris inauguration.
“So, you better see us while we’re cheap. Before you can’t afford a ticket.”
VOICES: The Trans Journey in III Acts plays at the Renberg Theatre on Saturday, Sept. 17 at 8 p.m. For tickets and more information about the Lily Tomlin/Jane Wagner Cultural Arts Center, visit culturalarts.lalgbtcenter.org.