Years ago, I had a student, a brilliant and creative trans woman, who regularly wore full stacks of thin metal bangles on her forearms. It was a smart choice. In addition to being further evidence of her status as a fashion icon, she also had a surefire way of commanding my attention whenever her hand shot up to answer a question. The clink of the bangles indicated the urgency of her thought. I never want to seem intrusive to my students, so I don’t generally ask them about what they’re wearing, but to me those bangles seemed to be a statement. Their sound hitting her desk, or on her raised arm, proclaimed, “I’m here.”
As a non-binary person, I find myself trying to do the same thing. I see my friends and colleagues in the trans, non-binary, and gender nonconforming communities doing this too. The loud proclamations define the fluid borders of our havens, and make those spaces safe for quiet. And so we look at ourselves. We look at each other. We find love and acceptance, often small in scale at first. And then, when we deem the world worthy of our genius, we put the bangles on.
Here I am going to do an incomplete job of a similar kind of noise-making on behalf of non-binary plays. I will take an ultimately minuscule fraction of plays wrought by non-binary writers and amplify them to create an admittedly porous “definition” of the “non-binary play.” There will be many holes in this amorphous theatrical survey, and I hope other non-binary creators will fill them, either with their own work or criticism. However, the impossibility of completion is no excuse to shy away from the urgency of starting.
And starting is urgent. In my own work and in the work of other non-binary playwrights, I see formal shifts, pushbacks, additions, and questions declared through stories that are often dismissed by the cis-heteronormative establishment as too distant from the prescriptions of Aristotelian theatre to qualify as dramatic narrative. They aren’t, of course, and the insistence that they are only serves another oppressive binary: the play/not play divide that has been used to exclude many female, Black, Indigenous, POC, queer, and neurodiverse artists, and all intersections thereof and beyond. There is a long tradition of this, but that does not mean it must continue. If you must look to Aristotle, read his own “On Interpretation,” in which he notes that language exists “by convention.” We create the conventions; if they no longer serve us, we can alter them. Language, and the art created with it, serves the people, not the other way around.
The main folks I’d like to be served in naming the convention of the non-binary play are emerging non-binary playwrights. Ideally, they’ll use their words to build out the diversity of this ever-changing category of theatre. Second, I hope this work of defining reaches audiences, theatres, and critics who are perhaps seeking to embrace work by non-binary artists but remain unsure of the vocabulary with which to do so. This vocabulary matters. In the graphic novel Gender Queer, Maia Kobabe writes of eir trouble with the gender binary: “The knowledge of a third option slept like a seed under the soil. This seed put out many leaves, but I didn’t have the language to identify the plant.”
We non-binary folks frequently find ourselves naming and renaming “the plant,” but there is also sometimes a need to name the soil, the roots, the oxygen produced by the leaves, the chlorophyll, and other components that are related to, but are not, the plant itself. In other words: Naming myself non-binary was one step. After that came the need to rename my art in relation to my non-binary self. This, in fact, is where the idea for this article began.
In 2020, my play Turning Krasniqi won a Parity Commission from Parity Productions. As a result, it received dramaturgy from the company’s artistic leadership. This was invaluable. It transformed my story of a Kentucky high school student who adapts a centuries-old Albanian ritual to become burrnesha—a gender in which someone assigned female at birth takes on more masculine social roles—into a tight, efficiently structured piece of theatre. In this process, questions arose about tonal shifts within the piece. These were moments I recognized as unconventional but deeply true. In my experience as a non-binary artist with Albanian and Greek ancestry, I constantly felt the whiplash of reaching back toward deeply emotional, cultural gender rituals, only to be propelled into present-day laughter around the pop culture worlds I love dearly. I wanted my play to preserve that rapid oscillation, because, for those of us who question pieces of our identity, this does not happen in a vacuum. Processing gender frequently happens at intersections where we are also serving some other part or parts of our selves. As such, gender breakthroughs can happen in clothing stores, or school bathrooms, or in parks as one LARPs their armor-clad self toward more victories than one. The cathartic absurdity of this is important to my journey, and my work.
I don’t know how common this tonal blending is in non-binary plays, but I’ve read enough of them to know I’m not alone. Currently, I’m editing a collection of non-binary plays for Next Stage Press. While there are collections of plays by trans writers, this is the first I’ve seen that focuses on non-binary folks specifically. That distinction may demand an explanation. A collection of work by trans authors should aim to include trans men, trans women, and non-binary folks who consider themselves to be under the trans umbrella (not all do). In creating a book of non-binary work, it would be disrespectful of me to include trans men and trans women who do not also use the term “non-binary” for themselves (as some, namely some in my collection, do). This is because trans men are men, and trans women are women, and no one has a right to impose upon them terminology that separates them from their validity in either of those genders. For non-binary folks, there is often the assumption of trans-ness. Since that is sometimes the case, I wanted my collection to be inclusive of those writers. However, I also wanted the book to be respectful of non-binary people who do not also define themselves as trans. For that reason, I use terms like, “trans and/or non-binary writers,” to allow for that diversity. If genders are boxes, then we are all cats. When cats put themselves in boxes, they can be as content as Garfield next to a fresh pan of hot lasagna. Put a cat in a box, though, and you will very quickly learn the true meaning of claws and teeth, and rightly so.
It’s important to me to respect the box of “non-binary” as its own place—connected to others, sure, but also fully formed on its own. More often than not, I’ll see the desire for non-binary folks to be coupled with another gender or gender category: “Women and Non-Binary People,” “Trans and Non-Binary People.” No one should deny that these intersections exist, but being non-binary is not a de facto rider to another gender. It is independent, and should take up space as such. One benefit of this is that, when work is studied as solely the work of non-binary people, certain trends or similarities may emerge that could illuminate shared interests and/or issues for said group. I’ve certainly noticed this in the collection of non-binary plays I’m editing, even allowing for the uniqueness of each piece. For instance, K. Woodzick’s short play Pageant and Pyres mixes the glitz and glam of ’80s and ’90s teen beauty pageants with the brutal execution of Joan of Arc. This oscillation of tone and time creates the friction that tears apart the binaries of the play, exposing its very heart.
Dismantling binaries is hard. It takes a lot of force. In non-binary plays where gender is a central theme, the audience may feel the bluntness of this energy so that the work can show both the possibility and the difficulty of removing the slash (“is/is not,” “past/present,” etc.) that establishes binaries. What some may experience as a tonal shift, then, is a very real manifestation of some non-binary experiences.
Playwright M. Sloth Levine uses something similar in their work. In Levine’s Four Moments of the Year, we hear four monologues spoken by trans people. They happen in different seasons, in different settings, in different tones, and they drop references to everything from ancient Greece to John Carpenter’s The Thing. Here, the tonal shifts strike me as having the same purpose as Woodzick’s, though the use of references that live in both antiquity and pop culture stands out as distinct. In Levine’s work, I get the sense that the inclusion of allusions old and new dismantles that particular temporal binary, while claiming both as trans via the mouth of a trans character.
We frequently learn about both history and modern pop culture as being implicitly cisgender. Antiquity is queer, no question about it, but teachers devoted to that truth have, in my experience, been overpowered by those committed to a more cis- and hetero-washed past. In many ways, modernity has the same problem. There’s queerness, but it often takes fan and slash fiction to push it up above subtext. For instance, while some Trekkies insist upon Captain Kirk’s heterosexuality, plenty of the earliest Star Trek slash fiction extrapolated a gay relationship with Spock. While some shrug off such plots as byproducts of a junk medium, queer communities within fandom gravitate toward such writing because it lets us see a version of ourselves explicitly in a text that hasn’t made space (the final frontier). When folks like Levine, and other playwrights who do this more extensively, incorporate both queer histories and pop culture into their work, and that work finds a mainstream home, it validates the queerness we have been elevating from those places all along. And since non-binary people often search through past, present, and future for places where we exist—and there are many—non-binary plays have the potential to spotlight these particular forms of queerness in areas of culture that are already in the homes of people far outside our community.
The work of locating transness in time and space is the work of many non-binary plays. It appears in Ashley Lauren Rogers’s The Last Ring, in which transness plays a key role in a story about professional wrestling. Here the impact of both gender and wrestling are shown onstage, expertly linking the trials of one to the other. Meanwhile C. Julian Jiménez’s plays Julio Ain’t Goin’ Down Like That and Bruise & Thorn lay a trans claim to their setting, New York City, and characters’ own trans and non-binary bodies. In Julio, Jiménez’s character Elegance sums up this ownership well by saying:
I live in truth. You were born into your truth. How nice for you. I earned my truth through trials and tribulations, through the backhands of my stepfathers and the chokeholds of my mother’s fingers pressed firmly to the Adam’s apple that my mother would forever remind me that I have…
Taken beyond the context of the play, these words reverberate into many non-binary plays and many non-binary lives. Many of us don’t have the experience of being “born into” our truth. In perhaps the best of cases, the possibility of being non-binary was learned about soon after, and the person was able to lay claim to the identity quickly. In my case, it would be decades after my birth before I even learned the language of being non-binary, and after that my truth had to survive the questions of friends and loved ones, the anger of those closest to me, and the harassment of neighbors. It wasn’t an experience as violent as Elegance’s, but it was one that hurt. Even so, Jiménez paints the right portrait of the experience: not one that centers trauma, but one that celebrates our truth’s power to emerge from the best and the worst. Being non-binary is not necessarily a story of trauma, but, when trauma does happen, non-binary plays are uniquely situated to show what happens when we make it through.
Above all, I would urge theatres that want to produce non-binary and trans work to acknowledge the potential subtlety of our stories. A non-binary play is not just one where a non-binary person comes out. It can simply be one where a non-binary character becomes part of something they love that has traditionally not explicitly made room for them. A theatre professional once asked me if I wanted to contribute a play to their to-be-published exploration of “the non-binary or trans experience.” I responded with a politely worded question about their use of the singular in “the non-binary or trans experience,” mentioning that for me, buying my first dress, pondering what kind of creature McDonaldland’s Grimace is, responding to transphobia, and playing with my Power Rangers action figures are all non-binary experiences, as I am non-binary, and I have experienced them. My response went unanswered.
Indeed the best thing about trans and non-binary experiences, as conveyed in trans and non-binary plays, is that they are by definition not one thing. They are a plethora of joys, pains, ownerships, references, anxieties, comforts, languages, forms, and more—all constantly evolving because of new diversity added. As non-binary playwrights intersect their work with the other parts of their identities—race, class, religion, neurodiversity, disability, culture—their audiences get to see the different ways our gender exists in the world. This lets us avoid the pitfall of portrayals of non-binary people in media, which typically skews white, thin, able-bodied, and neurotypical. The benefit of that isn’t just giving audiences a more honest picture of non-binary communities, but also the fact that such plays can act as an invitation to any non-binary person who may have felt they don’t “look the part” that says, “Yes, you belong here.”
This is why I have not started any sentence here with, “A non-binary play is…” Whatever I would say after the ellipsis would exclude a fellow non-binary playwright, and would void the greatest gift non-binary plays can give audiences: a sense that space exists to be claimed by those who have none, rather than assigned by or to those who have plenty. As I talked about the notion of the non-binary play with Ashley Lauren Rogers, they mentioned several elements that might come up frequently: “a play written or helmed by a non-binary artist…,” or that has “binary expectations (of gender or in general) as the focus of its criticism.” Or, they said, “It could be as simple as including well-rounded non-binary characters.”
Rogers then added that the act of definition itself often involves creating a binary itself around what something is and isn’t, adding, “If we’re truly looking to break binary thinking, we have to break binaries when looking at what a non-binary play is as well.”
Non-binary playwright and actor Dani Martineck agreed, but put it differently. “Non-binary plays are as varied as non-binary playwrights, non-binary performers, and non-binary storytellers of all kinds,” they said.
This may be frustrating for some seeking the efficiency of a single answer, but I prefer this type of fluidity. It centers the humanity present in non-binary plays, and begs us to pay attention the diverse range of work that could possibly fit under its umbrella. That diversity is human diversity.
When a non-binary play is produced, it is but one bangle on the arm of theatre. We need many. We need so many that when the hand is raised, the sound is instantly recognizable and its message cannot be ignored. We’re here. We’re here. We’re here.
Jonathan Alexandratos (they/them/theirs) is a non-binary playwright based in New York City whose award-winning work has been internationally produced. Find them on Instagram @toy_circus, Twitter @jalexan or on the web at https://jacentral.neocities.org.
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