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'Briefs' festival of LGBT plays celebrates milestone and explores transitions

St. Louis’ annual “Briefs” festival of LGBT plays is toasting its success this weekend.

During the event’s five years, audiences have grown and the festival has moved into a larger space. The number of  submissions has increased, and more esteemed playwrights and actors are participating. This year’s playwrights include Kansas native James Still, who was nominated twice for a Pulitzer Prize and three times for an Emmy Award.

That Uppity Theatre Company’s Joan Lipkin co-produces “Briefs” with the Vital Voice publication. She said the festival's format of presenting numerous short plays rather than one long one is partially responsible for its success.

“It happens to be a form that I’m in love with because when it’s done well, it’s as if you experience an entire universe in 10 minutes,” Lipkin said.

This reality’s not a show

This year’s “Briefs” includes Still’s “When Miss Lydia Hinkley Gives a Bird a Bird,” about a 19th-century woman’s literary club. It also features a modern-day story of a mother and daughter, whose bond is both typical, and different.  

A shoe-shopping trip is the setting for the play, called "A Comfortable Fit." Local actor Kim Furlow plays the parent, a woman whose daughter calls her “Dad.” That’s because until recently, this parent identified as a man. 

"It's not about being transgender; it's about being a human being," Furlow said. The drama isn't in how the parent identifies. Instead, it’s about Dad-slash-Mom pressuring her daughter to start dating after a divorce by introducing her to everyone, including the shoe store salesman.

Kim Furlow plays a transgender woman shoe-shopping with her daughter in "A Comfortable Fit."
Credit Briefs Festival
Kim Furlow plays a transgender woman shoe-shopping with her daughter in "A Comfortable Fit."

Playwright Stephen Peirick said the plot is in sharp contrast to Caitlyn Jenner, with her entourage and reality show.

“The reality for most transgender people is that they live life day to day,” Peirick said.

‘A fantastic choice’

In “A Comfortable Fit,” Furlow’s character wants to find a pair of heels that are the right size and don’t hurt her feet.  Comfort is important; she’s already spent more than five decades feeling uncomfortable with her male appearance.

But when she prods her daughter to move on with her life, the daughter reminds her it’s not so easy.

“’[The daughter says] It’s taken you 52 years to make your transition so give me a little bit of time here. It’s only been three years for me,’” Furlow said.

To prepare for her role, Furlow talked to one transgender woman, watched TV shows with trans characters and read the blogs of parents of transgender kids. She feels comfortable with the part.

But nationally, there’s been some outcry over people who are “cisgender” (identifying with the gender they were assigned at birth) playing transgender roles. Examples include Jared Leto in “Dallas Buyer’s Club” and Eddie Redmayne in “The Danish Girl.”

Joan Lipkin is founder and artistic director of St. Louis' That Uppity Theatre Company
Credit Joan Lipkin
Joan Lipkin is founder and artistic director of St. Louis' That Uppity Theatre Company

Unlike New York or Chicago,  St. Louis’ small-but-growing transgender community doesn’t have a large pool of actors to choose from, Lipkin said, saying it's a complicated artistic and political question.

"I believe strongly in providing opportunities for underrepresented communities to perform and be seen authentically as themselves," Lipkin said, in a text message. "But I also think it's important to get the issues and ideas out there. So we make choices and we make progress incrementally."

Lipkin and Peirick said they'd like to stage the play in the future with a trans actor. Otherwise, both he and Lipkin agreed Furlow is a perfect fit for the part.

“I think she’s a fantastic choice,” Lipkin said.

This is not the first play staged at the "Briefs" festival with a transgender character, Lipkin said, but it's one of only two or three in the festival's five-year history. She pointed out that the festival's diversity extends beyond the choice of topics. Two African-American females -- Jacqueline Thompson and Fannie Lebby -- are directing productions. In 2014, Lebby won a $20,000 St. Louis Regional Arts Commission Artists Fellowship.

“Briefs” runs Friday night through Sunday afternoon at the Rialto Ballroom at the Centene Center in Grand Center. Tickets are $18 in advance and $25 at the door.

Follow Nancy Fowler on Twitter: @NancyFowlerSTL

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.