Dismayed by the machinations of Halifax Pride and the pink mania surrounding the Barbie movie, I attended a July performance of F*cking Trans Women*, a solo show by Zoë Comeau at The Bus Stop Theatre. In the production, Comeau, 28, shared reflections from her life as a transgender woman who, as a youngster, discovered a red satin thong while building a fort with pals in a wooded area near Dartmouth.
“I was age 11 when it happened,” Comeau later told me, reprising a vignette from the riveting show. “My friend picked it up with a stick and hit me in the face with it. They called me a ‘fag’ for looking at it too long. That night I couldn’t sleep, so I snuck out, found the thong, and ran back home. I threw it into the sink and had a panic attack wondering what was happening to me.”
Comeau received a thunderous standing ovation for a performance that included sections in her native French and projected animations of penises in various states of vitality. In a brilliant move, Comeau also directed the audience to retrieve the index card and pencil that had been placed under our seats. “Try writing your name with your less dominant hand — you can probably do it … but it’ll look clunky and rough,” she told us. “Now use your dominant hand. It just works. Mind and body aligned.”
The exercise handily underscored the difficulty of contravening one’s natural disposition. Comeau later credited the Halifax Sexual Health Centre and her therapist with helping her to “become the person I’ve always been.” She plans future performances of the show in which she also gives voice to her conundrums about the vagina.
“If I could go to bed and wake up with a vagina, I would be so happy,” she mused to rollicking laughter in F*cking Trans Women. “I don’t know what path I’ll choose. … The whole process is extensive. It’s grueling for some, impossible for others, and it takes time.”
She later told me: “The most important thing I’ve learned about my show is that it is making people feel seen, valid, beautiful, and utterly alive.”
Director Sébastien Lifshitz also explores visibility and gender expression in Little Girl (2020). The superb documentary is available in Nova Scotia public libraries and serves as an excellent resource as debates about trans rights (often stirred by repressive politicians) make headlines across the country.
As for timing, half a century after the famed African Nova Scotian actor Walter Borden first performed at The Neptune Theatre, I was among those who, last fall, celebrated his return to that stage in his solo show, The Last Epistle of Tightrope Time. Then 80, Borden played 10 characters in the piece that was inspired by his personal experiences and observations as an openly gay, Black man. Moreover, I was delighted to attend the post-show ceremony at which Borden was feted as the namesake for Neptune’s Walter Borden Greenroom.
Watching the elegant actor receive the honour, I recalled the sequence in The Last Epistle when Borden likened life to a patchwork quilt. “Them pieces don’t mean nuthin’ when they scattered all about,” Borden said. “It’s the stichin,’ not the patches that completes your handiwork.”
Those attending the Lunenburg Doc Fest (Sept. 21 to 27) can experience the fascinating family and social history that queer filmmaker Lagueria Davis has stitched together in Black Barbie.
The documentary begins with the Texas native discussing her decision to move, in 2011, to Los Angeles in hopes of advancing her career. There, Davis was welcomed by her aunt, Beulah Mae Mitchell who, she was stunned to discover, had worked more than 40 years for Mattel — the behemoth toy company behind the doll (launched in 1959) that has sparked the current Barbie movie craze.
“I had no idea that my aunt was one of the first Black women to work at Mattel,” said Davis, 45, during a recent Zoom chat. “And she had all kinds of dolls in her house that she’d collected over the years. I never liked dolls so this was a whole new world for me.”
Enthralled, Davis toiled a dozen years to complete a film that turns an unflinching eye on the Barbie empire. In addition to recounting the achievements of her aunt, she documents the creation of the first official Black Barbie doll (debuted in 1980) and the career of Kitty Black Perkins, the toy’s dazzling, Black principal designer.
The film also includes interviews with a coterie of Black folk who share their thoughts on Barbie and the sociocultural impact of a toy that has historically promoted white standards of beauty. The segments in which a multi-racial group of children discuss Barbie dolls with a family therapist are spellbinding.
Davis said that she could have never imagined that her indie effort would be released in the whirlwind of the Hollywood-backed Barbie blockbuster. “It’s been surreal,” she told me. “Let’s just say that Black Barbie has not received the same level of distribution and marketing support. I’m very happy about the screening in Lunenburg.”
My chat with Davis about race and representation has resonated profoundly since the Yellowknife-area wildfires (and their aftermath) have forced me to delay a planned trip to the city to research a 1955 court case. Archival records reveal that the case centered on a then Yellowknife typist with a penchant for Scrabble. While Scrabble sales are small compared to those of Barbie dolls (one billion and counting), 150 million sets of the board game have been sold since it was invented, in 1938, by American architect Alfred Mosher Butts.
In a momentous scene in her film, Davis and her aunt thumb through Mattel: 70 Years of Innovation and Play, a hefty, coffee table book. The women are visibly dismayed to discover that a timeline of Mattel brands doesn’t include Black Barbie — an offense tantamount (in my view) to omitting Coffee Crisp from a list of top-selling Canadian candies.
As for Scrabble, I aim to build on the findings that University of Ottawa law professor Constance Backhouse published in her book Carnal Crimes (2008). In her trenchant analysis of the court case, she shares an exchange that affirms, as does Davis’s movie, the importance of shattering silences. As Backhouse tells it, toward the end of her research, an impeccable source astounded her with the news that the Yellowknife typist “probably would have never been prosecuted, if she hadn’t been Black.”
And with that, here’s a news flash for Halifax Pride about a purported re-scheduling of the July parade that was postponed (understandably) because of extreme weather conditions. It’s now September: Your silence is not golden.
*A previous version of this story misspelled the name of Comeau’s solo show. We apologize for the error.