Becca Blackwell knows a thing or two about delivering a command performance. Still, they admit to being a little intimidated by the sheer scope of their latest role.
Blackwell, a New York writer and performer who identifies as a transgender nonbinary person, is currently starring in “Hurricane Diane,” one of the most outlandish, yet forward-thinking, adaptations of Greek tragedy you’re likely to encounter in an off-Broadway theater.
Playwright Madeline George, who was a Pulitzer Prize finalist, and director Leigh Silverman transplant Euripides’ “The Bacchae” into suburban New Jersey, circa the present day. Dionysus here is a butch permaculture gardener named Diane, and she is played with appropriate swagger by Blackwell. (A note about pronouns: Blackwell uses “they, them and their,” although the character of Diane is identified in the play as female, using “she, her.”)
Diane sets her sights on a quartet of upper-middle-class housewives on a Monmouth County cul-de-sac. Turns out, each of the women is in the throes of an individual crisis, like job-related anxiety or marital strife. Hence, Diane vows to seduce each one-by-one and, in doing so, begin to restore humanity’s relationship with the natural world. (In keeping with the show’s contemporary setting, climate change is also a prominent theme.)
In a conversation with HuffPost, Blackwell spoke about their journey with “Hurricane Diane,” which they first performed at New Jersey’s Two River Theatre in 2017, the challenge of playing a demigod and why they hope people in the audience come away from the show more self-aware than before.
As someone who identifies as trans and nonbinary, how did you approach playing a character whose identity doesn’t necessarily line up with your own?
I’m still the same person I was when I was 21 — my essence is very much the same. I’m very vocal as an artist about the fact that I’ve lived as a bull dyke [and] I don’t think I’ve ever really changed. When I was approached about doing it, I think Madeline was nervous I wouldn’t identify with [the role]. I’m not someone who has reverence for any of those things — for gender norms or anything like that. I’m like, “Whatever!”
I was excited because there have never been roles for people like me. As an actor, I was told by a producer in 2003 — before I’d ever taken hormones or anything — that I was too masculine to play a bull dyke. She said that to my face. I literally said, “Have you ever met a bull dyke?” I don’t know many people who are performers or actors that are unapologetically butch. You know, Lea DeLaria did it, but she was a jazz singer before she got “Orange Is the New Black.”
What intrigued you most about Diane’s journey in the play?
It’s overwhelming, and I’ve found it to be one of the most difficult roles [of my career] because I’m playing a demigod. I think, maybe in our showers, we all think we can do it, but when you’re really doing it, it’s humbling and hard, because you have to carry a kind of confidence that’s rarely seen in people.
I think a lot of [male actors] can say, “I wanna be like Al Pacino.” They have people they can focus a concept on, but I had no one to use as a reference who was like me. I had to find the best parts of myself, to find myself shining. I had to overcome a lot of own shortcomings and insecurities.
The role is such a tour de force for you — you get love scenes, you get a dance number …
And I’m wearing cargo shorts the whole time — every girl’s dream! (laughs) It’s very fun. Everyone in the show — the cast, the crew, the director — is so amazing. I wanted to be the best I could be for myself, and for their sake.
What tested you most about the role?
The language — the command of the language, saying things with ease and confidence. That’s a lot harder than it seems. I come out really gregarious, boisterous and assertive, and then I play every scene very quiet. I’ve always played sidekicks or comic reliefs or those kinds of things. Playing a lead is a whole different ballgame. I joke with my friend because I came out of a show right before this where I had maybe 10 lines. I’m definitely missing that now! (laughs)
With so many fantastical elements, “Hurricane Diane” isn’t really a conventional show. Yet you still have to be very conscious of how you represent a marginalized community within that …
I think maybe some millennials might think, “Oh, we’re past all that.” And maybe we are, I don’t know. Even if we are, there are still people older than me seeing the show who aren’t getting it. It’s something to be aware of because you’re always having to come up against it.
I think bull dykes or masculine women have never really found their place in the world, because … the currency women hold in the world is their femininity. I know as someone who has lived this life, you’re usually on the fringe, and you’re invisible to the rest of the world. I was wanting to bring that visibility with … that lived experience.
If there’s a next chapter for you and “Hurricane Diane,” what would you like that to be?
I’d do it again because I feel like this role, in a way, I haven’t fully gotten. I haven’t once walked away from the show where I was like, “I got it.” It’s definitely still a show I could unpack and unpack and unpack, for sure. I would do anything Madeline wrote because she’s so fucking funny, and Leigh’s a really great director. Every person I’m acting with on that stage, I wanna see the work they make.
What’s next for you otherwise?
I love working on new stuff, new material. I’m always interested in meeting new artists. I’m working with Amanda Duarte on a piece called “Snatch Adams,” which is gonna be like a “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse” for STDs and genitals. Snatch Adams was a pussy clown who tried to cheer up sad vaginas, and then after Trump was elected, she lost her job at Planned Parenthood. So she did what most autonomous vaginas do, which is to start a talk show. We have special guests and stand-up comedians. You know, real family stuff! (laughs)
What are you hoping audiences take away from your performance in “Hurricane Diane”?
If anything, I hope they’ll be a little more aware of other people and things in the world around them. That they know they’re not the only thing happening, and that every small choice has a direct effect on the world they live in. I think a lot of us like to say, “Well, I’m not like that” or “I don’t do that” or “I’m not classist, I’m not racist, I’m not homophobic.” But if you participate in structures that are any of those things, you’re part of it.
“Hurricane Diane” runs through March 24 at New York Theatre Workshop.