By Bridgette M. Redman
In Audra Lord’s play about memory and identity, only one character is fully comfortable with herself and who she is: Princess Stephanie, a transgendered rock singer who doesn’t need a life history to fit into her own skin.
The four main characters in “Fugue,” a new work that is premiering at The New Theater Project in Ypsilanti, have all suffered severe memory loss. Throughout the course of the play they learn their names, and bits of their histories float back into their awareness.
Each character responds in a different way to the memory loss, some with anger and frustration at not knowing who they are, others with excitement about what they can now create out of their lives. It is only Stephanie who lives completely in the present, fully aware that she is transgendered even while lacking knowledge of any of her past or of the people who were once in her life.
“This character grounds it,” said playwright Audra Lord. “I don’t think that she’s the center of the play, because she’s not, but she has this wonderfully zen energy in which she is the one character who is perfectly good with where she is. She has no idea who she is, but everything is good. She is probably the most stable character in the piece.”
She stated that Keith Paul Medelis, the group’s artistic director, is the perfect person to play Stephanie because he has the grace and soul to properly portray her. Medelis said he prepared for the role by researching transgenderism and what it means.
“It doesn’t matter what parts you have, it’s what you desire to have,” Medelis said. “She wants to be a woman. It was really important that I not play Stephanie as a drag queen or a gender performance, but as a woman. She has a few lines about how she doesn’t want to be a man, that she never felt like she was a man.”
While Stephanie has her campy moments where she performs as a musician, Medelis said what was more important was making sure he portrayed a character who was comfortable living in the in-between space of being born one gender and identifying as another.
Lord drew inspiration for Stephanie from a Ferndale artist, Stephanie Loveless, publisher of “Ferndale Friends.” Loveless had been composing what she called “inventions” that Lord felt captured the ideas of the “Fugue.” She asked Loveless to compose music that could be played in the production.
While Loveless has not attended any of the readings or workshops that have led up to this premiere, she was one of the early readers of the script. She observed that the Stephanie of “Fugue” doesn’t speak or act like her, but that she is honored to have inspired the part.
“I told Audra to make it big so I can ride on her coattails,” Loveless said.
The fugue “Silently Falling” that she composed for the play was based on a love song that she had written for a girlfriend. Written in a Baroque style, she played with her original piece until she developed the theme that works for “Fugue.”
“A fugue is kind of like a musical jigsaw puzzle where you are trying to weave together more than one melodic line,” Loveless explained.
“Fugue,” directed by Luna Alexander, features Jon Ager, Don Johnson, Medelis, Linda Rabin Hammell and Jamie Weeder. The New Theatre Project first did a reading of “Fugue” nearly a year ago as did Performance Network, both experiences that gave Lord opportunity to rework the script.
“It’s a great drama with really poetic stuff,” said Medelis, referring to the play as an intense and emotional piece. “We have almost the same cast as when we did a reading of the first draft last December. It was magical when we first read it and was very funny. We knew that this was something we wanted to do.”
The New Theatre Project at Mix Studio Theatre, 130 W. Michigan Ave., Ypsilanti. $15. Friday-Sunday, Nov. 30-Dec. 18. 734-645-9776. http://www.thenewtheatreproject.org