Credit: Azure D. Osborne-Lee

You don’t have to look further than this year’s Tony Awards to see why we need festivals like The Syndicate’s First Read 2019, which featured staged readings of new plays by trans playwrights last weekend.

“Look at Tootsie,” says trans playwright Gavin D. Pak of the Chicago-born musical, which took this year’s Tony in the category. “It reinforces the suspicions and stereotypes transphobic people already hold against us. The entire story is laughing at a man wearing a dress to get a job, [at the notion that] that gender is a costume you can put on. The theater community is supposed to be so progressive. We still have far to go.” Not only did the show win the Tony, cis-het male actor Santino Fontana won for best actor in a musical for cinching himself into a dress and singing about female empowerment.

With First Read 2019, Pak and their cohorts hoped to narrow the distance. The First Read series spotlights new plays by trans playwrights, culled from submissions The Syndicate receives from across the country. Other readings in Chicago, both at the Martin (2515 W. North), included Pak’s semiautobiographical Prefer Not to Answer, or Other, Theo Germaine’s Dig, Lucas Garcia’s QUEMADO, and June Thiele’s Ashana (A Native Play).

Pak’s quasi-autobiographical one-act about a semi-closeted trans student preparing for college is set in a high school. Germaine’s Dig follows two amateur sleuths as they try to solve the mystery of their lover’s mysterious death.

“If storytellers don’t change the thinking, we’ll never feel integral to the world we live in,” says festival producer Hal Cosentino, a trans man whose work the desert play (Or Nothing Feels Like) got a reading in The Syndicate’s inaugural First Read in 2018, held in New York City.

This year Cosentino helped curate the submissions. “Playwrights had to identify as trans, that’s the first and foremost criteria. Those are the voices we want to amplify,” Cosentino said. “Beyond that, we looked for plays that are complex. The plays we selected are all—to use a word that’s really common right now—intersectional. They’re about trans people and their family relationships, or trans people dealing with school or loss. They help us understand transness, but they aren’t one-note plays that hit you over the head.”   v