'When January Feels Like Summer' -- A Hit Play Where a Trans Character Soars and Lifts All Around Her

Political milestones like the recent proactive stance by the Obama administration on behalf of trans civil rights are a significant metric of a community's advancement. In addition, cultural milestones also play an important role, shedding light on the pace and depth of cultural evolution. One such recent milestone is the staging of the play by Cori Thomas (directed by Serge Seiden and produced by Ari Roth) with the Mosaic Theater Company of DC, entitled "When January Feels Like Summer." (A more appropriate title for DC this month would be "When May Feels Like Winter," given we've barely seen the sun all month, but the point is the same).

The play, which could be characterized as a romcom, has five characters - Devaun and Jeron, two young African-American men; Nirmala and Indira, relatively recent Hindu Indian immigrant siblings, and Joe, a middle-aged African-American union sanitation worker - all living and working in the same Harlem neighborhood. The diversity of the cast is a key component of the play, highlighting residents of New York who are rarely seen. This is encapsulated for me in one exchange between Devaun and Jeron (Act I, Scene 9):

DEVAUN
I just want to help the world. I'm looking for the beginning moment to
show people the real meaning inside of me so they can say "Whaaat?" I
just want to do something for everyone to know that when we walk down
the street and sidewalk, we not invisible.
JERON
I see you. Do you see me?
DEVAUN
Yeh, yeh that's what I mean. I see you. That's what I mean. Yeh.

The trans subplot revolves around Indira, formerly known as Ishan, who is living with her sister, Nirmala, helping her with the bodega left by her husband who lies in a coma in Harlem Hospital after being shot. Indira's transition begins at the beginning of the play, and continues throughout the climax.

When I was reading the play before seeing the production I kept waiting for disaster to strike. After all, disaster - murder, rape, assault, being the victim or worse, being the predator - has been the lot of the trans character throughout all media since Christine Jorgensen returned to the Bronx in 1952 and eight years later Alfred Hitchcock presented the dehumanizing trans ur-theme in Psycho. To my complete surprise, not only did disaster not happen, but the play ended on remarkably upbeat notes. The playwright, Cori Thomas, during our after-performance discussion with Mosaic Theater trustee, Stephen Stern, and the audience, remarked that she had no idea how the play would end right up to the final scene, which she wrote in 2009. Remarkably it evolved extremely positively for its time, but it took the recent leap by the trans community into the national spotlight to help the play get much broader attention, first off-Broadway and now in DC.

For Indira, as for Devaun and Jeron, being seen for who she is, her authentic self, was critical. Indira's sister has some trouble with the gender transition, but learns quickly and clearly is empathetic and supportive, particularly in light of the fact that her arranged-marriage husband is not only in a coma, but turns out to never have touched her because he was addicted to porn. Fortunately for her, Indira's growing self-acceptance, manifest early by her cartoonish flirtatiousness, develops into a much deeper humanity which projects outward in support for all the other characters. (One of the few negative notes for me was how Indira's early behavior played into the way-too-common perception of trans women as hypersexual beings and potential predators. This was heightened by a subplot where Devaun, who is quite homophobic, goes on a crusade against the man he says had come on to him. That thread ends well when the so-called gay guy, Lorrance, turns out not to be gay but a fetishist).

The last relationship was between Joe and Nirmala. Joe is the stable, mature presence on-stage who has suffered his share of relationship misery but has come to understand himself and his needs and desires. Joe easily accepts Indira's transition from the start, more easily than Nirmala, and Indira, in return for Joe's kindness, plays matchmaker for Joe and her sister. Indira seems to intuit Joe's desire for her sister, and this sense of intuition comes into play again in a serious conversation (Act, II, Scene 4) between the team of Devaun (who is a Ms. Malaprop kind of character) and Jeron (playing the straight man):

JERON
How do you know all about doin' alla that?
DEVAUN
Auno Jeron, how you know whatchu know?
JERON
Auno, I just know it.
DEVAUN
Well, that's what I do and it work.

Most trans people have this experience - "How do you know you're a girl? Really, how can you possibly know that?" The answer is - the only answer as of today - "I just know." Just as gay people turned the tide when asked, "How do you know you're gay?" by answering with a question, "Well, how do you know you're straight?", so, too, do trans persons reply, "When did you know that you're a man?" Sometimes that's enough, and other times it gets a discussion going. Either way, it breaks through the questioner's default mode of assuming his gender identity is a magical product of his possession of a penis.

The play climaxes with everyone finding love in remarkably diverse couplings, in historical perspective as strange as the weather brought on by climate change referenced in the play's title. Jeron, the smart one who's studying computer tech but is extremely naïve about women, is successfully set up with a Chinese-American woman by Devaun, the lady's man. Joe and Nirmala get it together thanks to Indira, and most remarkably of all, Devaun and Indira hit it off.

First, Devaun falls for Indira and comes on to her. She's extremely flattered and can't resist, going out with him but living in fear of the consequences of her "big reveal." (I was becoming increasingly anxious when I got to this scene.) Rather than avoiding the issue, which I would have taken as a successful ending, Ms. Thomas brings in the character of Lord Ganesha, a statue in the corner of the family store.

Lord Ganesha, the elephant boy, is described by Indira as having the power to remove all obstacles to happiness. She explains the origin myth of Ganesh, a boy who inadvertently had his head cut off and the only replacement was an elephant's. She then changes the frame for her relationship with Devaun, taking it outside the Western concepts of sex and gender, transsexualism and homosexuality, creating a safe space for Devaun to approach her intimately if he so desires.

Not only did a multicultural twist allow romance to take root, but the cisgender male character with the trans woman is an African-American. The play has been criticized by some as stereotyping young African-American men, particularly in terms of their language, lack of boundaries and poor education. But not only is Jeron shown to be extremely smart and well-spoken, Joe is the strong familial and spiritual center of the play. The fact that at a time when the murder of African-American trans women continues at a rate of 20-30 annually, mostly at the hands of cisgender African-American men, I find the conclusion of Devaun and Indira's story to be extremely uplifting and optimistic.

In a timely manner, when an Hispanic woman on a Bronx subway violently verbally assaulted a black trans woman and then had the nerve to portray herself as the victim, this play, which began with Devaun and Jeron making a ruckus on the subway in Manhattan with little consideration to Nirmala who was just trying to sit quietly after visiting her husband ("Stand clear of the closing doors," the subway voice intones), ends on a very high note.

In Britain the subway announcement is "Mind the gap," rather than "Stand clear of the closing doors." All of Ms. Thomas' New York residents ultimately didn't seem to "mind the gap" at all; the doors remained open thanks to their perseverance and they embraced the consequences.

Change continues to come.