How would you describe NO I.D.?
NO I.D. is a silly, warm, intimate show about the hoops that trans people need to jump through to accomplish the basic bureaucratic tasks around getting people to call you by your name on the other side of transitioning. It's also an examination and embracing of the person I was before I transitioned, the person I was when I began the journey of transitioning, and the man I am now. I look at the things these three people share, and the ways in which they are different, peppering in the music I wrote in each phase of that journey, and calling on the voices of people who have been in my life throughout the entire thing to fill in the gaps in my storytelling. It's good fun, it's heartfelt, and it might make you queerer than you were before you saw it.
What has the journey of this play been like?
I started writing this play after being encouraged to do so by my director, flatmate and beloved collaborator Sean Ting-Hsuan Wang. We pitched it for Peckham Fringe before I had even started writing, got a slot in the festival and I was performing it in front of an audience about six weeks later! Since then we developed and extended the show as part of Theatre Peckham's Young, Gifted and Black Season before showing that version at VAULT Festival. It's been a very quick and intense process, which is exactly how I like making theatre, and at times it's turned my whole house into a sweatshop - I've been lifted up, encouraged, aided and pushed by some of my closest and most talented friends, and that aspect of the process has been the source of a lot of my joy in making it.
You perform in the play, as well as having written it. What’s it like to be both writer and performer at the same time?
Sometimes it's a challenge to put my writer's brain on mute whilst I'm on stage! Since my time as a child actor in community theatre in California I haven't seen performance as the main event in my practice, but it's been really fun and healing to get back on stage and perform as myself, as a version of myself that I'm proud to share. I just thank god for Sean, who has been a fantastic facilitator in my writing process and has helped to keep me centred in the job of performing, whilst also giving me a lot of space each night for variation and authentic interactions with every audience.
What do you want audiences to take away from the show?
I aim to generate empathy in everything I make. With this show that's very much the case - but I also hope that audiences walk away more curious about themselves and the way they operate in the world. I want to make space for people to reflect on their own position on the gender spectrum, and what it is to be gendered from a young age, and to find room for laughter within it. NO I.D. is about change, and treating old versions of ourselves with compassion, and how we perform identities that we learn. It's also about how stupidly difficult it is to get a person's existence acknowledged on paper, and how reductive our understandings of identity are in bureaucratic settings. I hope that people feel inspired to consider the labour it can take to fit a tickbox, and how easy it is to fall through the cracks of our systems.
How does music feature in the show - what’s its place in it?
The show uses a few of the songs I wrote shortly before getting on hormones, and throughout my first year on testosterone. I've always used music to access, process and reflect on my emotions, both before and since my transition. I think the music fills in some of the gaps in the way I describe my journey: I present a case file of my transition in the text, and the music looks at those moments in my life through a more emotional lens. I tell you what happened in words, and then explain how I felt about it in song. It also helps me directly compare the person I was before with the person I am, because my recorded voice sounds very different from the live one. It's cool to be able to sing with someone who literally is me but also isn't here anymore.
The tone of the play feels very joyful. Why was this important for you?
I wanted to tell a trans story that presents a fuller picture of the trans experience than the ones we usually see in the media. I don't want to tell a story about suffering and danger and anguish. The world is hostile towards trans people, and that is incredibly difficult, but being trans is not my problem. Being trans is actually my solution! With this show I wanted to share the freedom, the joy and the peace that come from self-discovery and self-acceptance. I also wanted to show audiences that everyone has space to take part in trans joy. My life expectancy as a Black trans man is short! I want to spend it laughing, and inviting others to laugh with me.
NO I.D. appears, in the first instance, to be a one-man show. Do you think you could, however, consider your past self - of whom we see videos and photos throughout the show, and hear the voice of - to be a separate character in their own right? How do you see the relationship between your current self and your past self play out in the show?
I do think she is her own character in the show! Sometimes we feel so distant from each other that I talk about her like she's a separate person, both in the play and in my life. That girl sings in this show, she dances, her presence is felt from start to finish. Over the course of the show I think I call on her and excavate her in order to present her as part of my bureaucratic archive, but we also communicate together in song, and share how much we love each other. I have a very warm relationship to my past self and I think that warmth goes both ways between us in NO I.D.
Why did you choose a distinctly bureaucratic lens to tell such a personal story?
Before making the show, whenever I would speak to people about my transition, the thing that shocked people the most was how absurdly difficult it was to sort out my paperwork. I liked the idea of presenting a part of the trans experience that people outside of it know very little about, but that everyone can relate to. Who hasn't had to sit on the phone listening to crackling, choppy classical music, trying to contain their rage in their attempt to get the disinterested person on the other side of the line to give them what they needed? I wanted my audience to be able to recognise themselves in the show even if they weren't gender nonconforming or queer, to establish some connection before I get into the more complicated parts of transitioning.
What does it mean to have your show transferred to the Royal Court?
It means absolutely everything to be doing this transfer. We are a young company, most of us immigrants, all of us queer, who have been taught our entire lives that our stories aren't taken seriously on big stages. I've been told many times by people in our industry that I would never be able to bridge the gap between fringe theatre and theatres like the Royal Court with my work. I am so grateful to the Court for giving me a chance to prove those people wrong, and to prove to other young makers and trans artists that our work is worth believing in.
Tatenda Shamiso’s play NO I.D. runs at the Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Upstairs until Saturday 6 May 2023.
Photo: Marc Brenner