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Tennesse's law restricting drag performances was struck down by a judge a year ago

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Last year, Tennessee became the first state to pass a law restricting drag performances and the first state to see its law struck down by a federal judge. Bans in other states are still in effect. The Tennessee law was so broad that it would have outlawed many performances, including those of one rural Tennessee theater troupe. Marianna Bacallao from member station WPLN reports.

MARIANNA BACALLAO, BYLINE: It's traditionally a one-woman show, but director Dashboard Schweizer expanded the cast of "I Am My Own Wife" to nine actors.

DASHBOARD SCHWEIZER: That's how queer people do it. We take care of each other. We witness each other. We hold space for each other.

BACALLAO: Tennessee's drag restrictions had defined performers as male or female impersonators. That would have put this show under scrutiny, since actors across the gender spectrum play multiple roles of different genders. The play follows the true story of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, a transgender woman who lived through Nazi Germany. This version of the show has two Charlottes, representing different times in her life. Josefine Parker, who plays young Charlotte, says it was important that an intergenerational cast portray this piece of LGBTQ history.

JOSEFINE PARKER: Even Charlotte in this play is talking about the gay '90s in the 1890s, and so people have this long sense of our history and that we've been resisting for a long time.

BACALLAO: For this role, Parker had to step inside Charlotte's experience facing an SS commander.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (As character) Are you a boy or a girl?

PARKER: (As young Charlotte von Mahlsdorf) I think, if they shoot me, what's the difference between a boy and a girl? Because dead is dead.

BACALLAO: That excerpt of Parker's performance was used as testimony against the state's drag restrictions last year, as the cast warned lawmakers that this law would make it impossible for transgender or nonbinary actors to perform on stage. While the final law was never enforced, Tennessee's attorney general has since appealed to the Sixth Circuit. The Attorney General's office tells NPR that the law is not a drag ban, but a ban on sexually explicit adult performances where a minor might see them, and that it will continue to defend it in court. Attorney Melissa Stewart represents plaintiffs in legal challenges to both Tennessee and Florida's drag restrictions. She says that she's read every law restricting drag in the country.

MELISSA STEWART: The Tennessee statute was first, and it is the - I think, the most audacious.

BACALLAO: Stewart says she would be shocked if the appeals court ruled in the state's favor.

SCHWEIZER: It's a very short leap from this law being constitutional to full-on censorship by the state.

BACALLAO: At a rehearsal for "I Am My Own Wife," the Sixth Circuit's impending ruling isn't the cast's biggest concern. As Schweizer is about to start giving notes on tonight's rehearsal, the cast asks if they're expecting any protesters to come to their performance in nearby Cookeville.

SCHWEIZER: I haven't heard any rumblings of that.

BACALLAO: The concern is not unfounded. Last year, far-right protesters flying a Nazi flag posted up outside of a drag show in downtown Cookeville without much response from law enforcement. For the cast, performing this play means addressing the threats to queer life, both then and now. Here's the show's leading lady, Spree Star as adult Charlotte.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SPREE STAR: (As adult Charlotte von Mahlsdorf) For us here in eastern Berlin, it was finished - gay life. Bars - closed. Personal advertisements in the newspaper - canceled. We were not supposed to exist - persona non grata.

BACALLAO: Star says that Charlotte's story gives her hope. Not only did she survive, the cast says, but her story has endured.

For NPR News, I'm Marianna Bacallao in Nashville. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Marianna Bacallao
[Copyright 2024 WKMS]