Gregory Haney laughs when I ask him what I think is the obvious question: was he a drag performer? Has he walked balls? Are there other trans or gender-playful roles in his background, professional or recreational?
“Honestly? This one time on a tour the entire cast and crew of Cats got done up in drag and went out. But other than that, no. In my case, I’m really playing a part. I was a football player in high school – now I’m playing this amazing high school dancer who is a transgender girl.”
Typically, when there’s a trans character in a mainstream production – whether theatre or film – I cringe through it as the non-trans people around me yuk it up at the very idea of a trans person. Hilarious! The mean jokes pile up, and I sink lower in my seat.
But Haney’s role, La Cienaga, in Bring It On: The Musical is somewhat startling. She’s one of two besties of Jackson High queen bee Danielle, a member of the school’s elite dance crew, and not played for cheap laughs at all. She dances the girl parts, partnering boys without it ever being played for camp value. “She’s written so well,” Haney says, “there would be no way to just do her as a caricature. She’s not, she’s a character, and no one laughs at her unless she’s joking on herself a little bit. Jeff Whitty [who wrote the script] really made sure.”
Of course, it begs the question: was there not a trans woman of colour available who could play this groundbreaking role? Haney is doing a fantastic job, but with so few roles written for trans women, especially trans women of colour, why hire Haney? When I ask him that question, he tells me that they did see quite a few trans women for the role, and that in fact the person who auditioned right before him was a trans woman. “I know the creative team cast people from everywhere: cheerleading camps, YouTube videos, you name it. This was the most non-traditional casting process I’ve ever seen. They were determined to get the right mix.”
So how did Haney turn out to be the man for a woman’s job? He practised, taking walks through New York City – even on the way to his audition – dressed as La Cienaga, watching how people reacted to him. “It was hard,” he says, ”and I knew it was already, but the amount I’ve learned is amazing. Transgender women have been telling me about their lives and making sure I know how important it is to do a good job. Especially now.”
By “especially now,” Haney is referring to the recent uptick in violent attacks against trans women, as well as the attention being given to bullying and harassment in schools. “I have so much respect for these women, for their will, for how they find their own path and follow it,” Haney says. “I’m honoured to shine a positive light on them and their experience.”
On Broadway, I prompt him. “Yeah,” Haney says, with a happy laugh in his voice. “On Broadway, baby.”
Bring It On: The Musical
Runs till Sun, June 3
Ed Mirvish Theatre
244 Victoria St