Review: In "As Sylvia," a Young Transwoman Looks to the Past and Her Future

As Sylvia

Written by Summer Minerva

Directed by Cecil Baldwin

Presented at The Kraine Theater

85 E 4th St., Manhattan, NYC

June 18-July 3, 2022

Summer Pilaf. Photo courtesy Emily Owens PR
In their recent book Sexual Revolution (Bloomsbury, 2022), Laurie Penny sees a rewriting of the social contract, including gender binaries as a form of social control, currently taking place and driven by women and queer people (p. 8, 15). Of course, the state of any such current revolution owes itself to those who came before in the struggle for change. As Sylvia, written and performed by Summer Minerva, reminds us of these debts, knitting present and past through transfemme "S," who counts drag queen and activist Sylvia Rivera (1951-2002) as her spirit guide and "transcestor." As Sylvia is part of FRIGID New York's 8th Annual Queerly Festival, which runs from June 15 to July 3 and celebrates "all things" LGBTQIA+ while providing a variety of queer artists an unfettered space for self-representation. A livestreaming option is available for most of the festival shows; and both in-person and streaming tickets can be purchased at www.frigid.nyc.

When the play, set in S's small, somewhat cluttered bedroom, opens, S is planning to meet a man from a dating app. While she laments that she has love without sex and sex without love, who, she asks, not for the only time, doesn't like to feel wanted? In preparation, S offers a prayer–notably including a request to the Goddess for safety–at an altar that includes photographs of Rivera, who acts sometimes as an inner voice and whose words, S says, help her to express things she otherwise couldn't. S, in fact, allows us to hear from Rivera in her own words–collected from interviews and speeches, including this one in 1973–by speaking intermittently, well, as Sylvia–heavy New York City accent included. (S idolizes but, importantly, does not idealize Rivera, acknowledging that Rivera, like anyone, trans or otherwise, had her own flaws.) One of the resonances that emerges between S's life and Rivera's is involvement (like, S observes, a disproportionate number of trans women) in forms of sex work–as S says, the body is one's only resource under capitalism, and as Penny writes, "women are alienated from their bodies in the same way that all workers are alienated from ownership of their labour," making any attempt to "reclaim" that body equivalent to a "sit-in or an occupation" (166)–S, indeed, recounts a literal sit-in staged by Rivera. S protests the reduction of trans women to their bodies and feels conflicted about allowing others to "use" her body, whether or not money is involved. S also admits to romanticizing the solidarity of the queer community in a pre-gentrification Village, mirroring Rivera's own critiques of the movements to which she gave herself: S critiques the way that subversion has been monetized out of queer communities, while, as Sylvia, noting the lack of support that Rivera and other drag queens received from the gay liberation movement. Climatically, S recounts an experience that reminds both her and us that White heteropatriarchal cosmologies are not the only way to see and be in the world–but will this reminder prompt S to her own act of self-reclamation?

Minerva is an engaging, often funny presence, adeptly investing the audience in both S and "Mother Sylvia." The show does not shy from thorniness or critique, but it also celebrates community, speaking out, and self-worth. From As Sylvia's polyvocality emerges its own distinctive voice.

-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards

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