Having the Opportunity and the Platform
Black, queer, transgender poet, Ianne Fields Stewart (pronouns: she, her, they, them) considers themselves to be a performer first and foremost. That was how they began to write, “there would just be actors in my mind that would start telling stories and I wanted to jot them down.” It was their life as an actor that gave Ianne the insight into how they wanted to see those stories told. “I know how they’ve been told on my body, and it’s about shifting the lens to how I want to tell them on someone else’s.”
While Ianne had always imagined they would not begin seriously writing until much further along in their career, after a presentation of their performance of a one person show, On the Train to Nowhere in Particular, they connected with Sam Salmond to be brought on as book writer for the project, A Complicated Woman. The musical, A Complicated Woman, tells the story of John Kenley, a Broadway impresario, who much like Vala, made theater accessible to a much wider audience when he pioneered bringing big name television and Broadway stars to summer stock theater. And while the world knew John Kenley, a public figure, in the summertime, few knew who Kenley was in the wintertime: Jean, an intersex trans woman sex worker.
It was with A Complicated Woman, that Ianne began to truly take themselves seriously as a writer. After working on the project for two years, they are ready to take the show to the next level with Vala, “I have the opportunity and the platform to do so, and I’m excited to do it.”
Trying to Figure Out How to Be All of Yourself
When asked what inspired them to write A Complicated Woman, Ianne muses that having lived 103 years of rich and fascinating life, there’s a lot to write about Kenley. “It is all about finding yourself between two choices, and trying to have it all. The journey of choosing yourself and figuring out how to navigate being in a binary world that asks you to be one thing or the other, and trying to figure out how to be all of yourself.”
And while the show’s creators have had unparalleled access to firsthand materials about Kenley’s life, including video and Jean’s unpublished memoir, the show is only loosely based on actual life events. There was one change to the record which was critical for Ianne. In Jean’s memoir there is a description of a close confidante. In order to sign on to the project, Ianne needed this friend character to not just be a trans woman, but for her to have a fully realized story and her own narrative as a Black trans woman. It is with the creation of the original character of Nina Mae that the show explores more than the fame John Kenley achieved, but also “the ‘possibility model’ for Jean, a possibility model that includes being able to live fully and authentically in the ‘Light of Day’” (a song title from the show).
Social Activism in the Okra Project and at the Heart of Theater Arts
For Ianne, social activism and the theater arts are intrinsically connected; artists do have a responsibility to be aware of the current times and society. And while they applaud “any work that allows and demands that race, gender, and ability and all kinds of marginalities be at the center of the storytelling,” they explain that for that re-centering to occur “it can’t just be representation, it has to be presence. It has to be that our presence within the story as marginalized people effects the story that is being told, and hopefully in positive ways.”
Throughout their career, Ianne has devoted themselves to this re-centering as both an artist and an activist. One Sunday in December 2018, while preparing to return home for the holidays, it occurred to them that many of their siblings in the Black trans community were denied that basic joy. By Wednesday of that week, they launched the Okra Project, hoping to raise $500 to create a small series of private chef experiences within the Black trans community, but by Friday had raised $6,000 instead.
Since that time, the Okra Project has been going strong, originally pairing Black chefs with Black trans community members for gourmet homecooked meals, it has expanded its programs to include free mental healthcare and food delivery during the COVID-19 crisis.
Now as Ianne prepares the show for its Vala debut, the challenge has been “how to tell part of the story and still have people lean in and want to hear the rest of it. This is a complicated story, it’s a complicated woman, and it’s difficult to take something so complicated and fit it into an 18 minute introduction. But I think we’re going to do it!”