New play charts a civil servant's journey from man to woman

Susan Kimberly sits for a portrait inside of the History Theater.
Susan Kimberly sits for a portrait inside of the History Theater in St. Paul on Tuesday. Kimberly is transgender and transitioned from male to female in 1983 before serving as deputy mayor of St. Paul under Norm Coleman in the mid-90s.
Evan Frost | MPR News

One of the plays in this year's "Raw Stages" festival of new works at the History Theatre in St. Paul is called "When Superman Became Lois Lane." By former St. Paul Deputy Mayor Susan Kimberly, it chronicles her very public gender transition.

Kimberly is 76 now, although you could say she's actually only 35 — Because 1983 is the year that Bob Sylvester ceased to exist and Susan Kimberly was born.

"I consider myself a transgender woman and I consider myself equally transgender and woman," she said. "But Bob was a guy — He was just a guy."

Kimberly said her play, at its heart, is a conversation between the person she was and the person she is. Their parts are played by two different actors, which makes sense. For many years the two hated each other, Kimberly said, and made each other miserable.

"You know when you're a former politician and an investment banker and you're a guy and you smoke cigars and you have convertible cars, it's hard to know that when you get home at night you really want to be a little girl," she said. "That's hard to square."

Kimberly said Sylvester did his best to ignore the truth at first — but if he'd continued to deny it, eventually it would have killed him.

Sylvester worked for years in the public arena, serving on city councils and heading the Housing and Redevelopment Authority. His decision to make his gender transition public drew a lot of media attention. Ultimately, she said, her story was covered in the local papers with grace and dignity.

Director Jay Eisenberg discusses rehearsal with playwright Susan Kimberly.
Director Jay Eisenberg, right, discusses rehearsal with playwright Susan Kimberly inside of the History Theater in St. Paul on Tuesday.
Evan Frost | MPR News

For Jay Eisenberg, directing this play meant a chance to work with a personal hero.

"If you had told me a few years ago that I would be directing a play written by and about Susan Kimberly, who is maybe one of the most important people I can think of in my life personally and also in the trans community in terms of what she has done, I wouldn't have believed you," Eisenberg said.

Kimberly's bravery — to transition while remaining in the public arena — strikes Eisenberg as remarkable. As does her work championing transgender rights.

Kimberly was next-door neighbors for a time with Norm Coleman. They became friends. In 1994, Coleman was elected mayor of St. Paul. That same year, there was a new Pride proclamation, which is traditionally signed by both mayors of the Twin Cities; for the first time it spelled out gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender.

"And Norm had trouble with bisexual and transgender folks being in that list," Kimberly said. "And so he refused to sign the proclamation. And so the two of us, who had been friends and next-door neighbors, suddenly became on-air debaters. And it was unkind, on both sides. We were very effective."

Eventually Coleman came to Kimberly and said he wanted to try to be friends again. They worked on a couple of projects together. In 1998, he asked Kimberly to be his deputy mayor.

Susan and Bob may be the stars of the show, Kimberly said, but Coleman is the real hero. She said he helped make her — and Sylvester's — dreams come true.

"I thought the notion that I would be the mayor in any form was just beyond possible, and then, in what was really an incredible act of political generosity, he made me the deputy mayor," she said. "And what that meant was that whenever he was out of town, I was the mayor. So I was the mayor dozens of times."

The History Theatre will present a staged reading of "When Superman Became Lois Lane" on Friday, Jan. 11, at 7:30 p.m.

Kimberly said writing this play has been therapeutic. By thinking and writing about Bob for the past year, their relationship has changed. The man she was — the man she most wanted to forget — has now become a dear friend.

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