'Naked I' returns with more nonconforming theater

TJ Carley and Mykel Pennington rehearse a scene
Mykel Pennington, left, plays a doctor delivering a diagnosis of Ovarian Cancer to TJ Carley during a rehearsal. Carley battled ovarian cancer during his transition from female to male.
Evan Frost | MPR News

The first time 20% Theatre staged "The Naked I," a show that brings together the stories of people who identify as trans, queer or otherwise gender-nonconforming, the company's artistic director was amazed at the reception.

"It was wild," recalled Claire Avitabile of that 2009 production, whose complete title was "The Naked I: Monologues From Beyond The Binary." Written by Tobias K. Davis, the play is considered the trans version of "The Vagina Monologues."

"There were people who took a bus up from Indiana. There were people who drove from all over the Midwest to see this thing that was supposedly going to reflect their lives, and it did. We received a ton of positive feedback and lots of people emailing and calling to ask us to do it again, to ask us how they could tell their own story."

Two years later, with the playwright's blessing, 20% Theatre put out a call for submissions for a new production, called "The Naked I: Wide Open." The organizers were overwhelmed with more than 100 monologues, short scenes and poems, all reflecting on what it's like to be trans or gender-nonconforming. Again, people came from all over the state and the region to see this new production.

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"And at that time we were just prepared to do the show," said Avitabile. "And that was it — but then during post-show discussions people were saying, 'Can you tour this? Can you bring this to my school? Is it published? Where can I buy it? Will you do it again?' And again it created this huge response, so we did publish it. And we realized as a company that we can't stop doing this work."

Ayesha Adu recites lines from "Triad"
Ayesha Adu recites lines from "Triad" her piece. "I am what white, male playwrights construct to be edgy," Adu says in the piece about being a black, queer triplet and the way society sees her family.
Evan Frost | MPR News

This weekend and next, 20% Theatre will stage its fifth "Naked I," involving 60 artists. This one is called "The Naked I: Recognize/d."

The pieces in this year's show range widely. One performer shares the frustrations of being a trans-grandparent, while another signs a performance on what it's like to be trans, black and deaf. TJ Carley is performing a heart-wrenching piece about his experience transitioning from female to male, and then being diagnosed with ovarian cancer. He describes it as being betrayed by his body — twice.

"I felt in some ways almost a little punished," he said. "That this is what you get for what you've done."

Carley said he's not an actor, even though he's been in "Naked I" performances three times now. He said that's the great thing about this show — it recognizes that everyone has a story to share.

Freya Richman said she first saw "The Naked I" in 2012.

"The seeds of my own gender transition were already germinating, and I heard about what this theater was about, and this performance," she said. "And it was a way for me to open a conversation with my family and for myself about where I felt like my life was headed."

Mykel Pennington rehearses a piece called "Voices"
Mykel Pennington rehearses a piece called "Voices" as part of 20% Theatre's "The Naked I: Recognize/d."
Evan Frost | MPR News

Two years later, in 2014, she auditioned and performed in "The Naked I." And two years after that, once she'd completed her transition from male to female, she wrote and performed her own piece. This year she's directing another trans woman, helping her to stage her story. Richman said for many people, this show is a lifeline:

"I felt like I was making it up as I went along, and when I discovered 20% Theatre I discovered that there were a lot of people who knew exactly what I was going through and were there to lift me up and affirm who I was."

"The Naked I: Recognize/d" opens Thursday night and runs through Feb. 11 at the Minnsky Theatre in Minneapolis.

Correction (Jan. 31, 2018): Captions in an earlier version of this story misidentified JamieAnn Meyers and Asher Edes.