On Christmas Day, 2006, Johanna Nutter received devastating news from her younger brother, who she had cared for like a mom during their childhood: he had given up his child for adoption.
They had both been caught up in an emotional whirlwind since finding out he was pregnant in the midst of his FTM transition, and the news was quite a shock.
After she hung up the phone, Nutter lay down on the floor and didn’t get up for a full day.
She swore to herself that if she ever did make it up off the floor, she would turn the story into a play. Thus, My Pregnant Brother was born. This is the first play that Nutter has written, and so far it has appeared in the Montreal Fringe Festival, Centaur Theatre’s Wildside Festival, at PEI’s Victoria Playhouse, and it is coming to Ottawa’s new Undercurrents festival at the beginning of February. We reached Nutter at her home in Montreal.
Xtra: Can you tell us what the show is about?
Johanna Nutter: It’s not necessarily about gender issues so much as it is about identity. It concentrates on a time in my life when I had resolved not to be the caretaker of my family anymore.
At exactly the same time I decided to do that, my brother got pregnant and needed me. It mostly focuses on how we got through that… It does also [revisit] us growing up, as children. Of course, before I even wrote a single word, I asked him for his blessing and he gave it to me.
I said, you know, it’s not really going to be a show about you and what happened to you; it’s going to be more about me and what it was like for me growing up and being a mother figure to you and then you having a baby and me wanting babies and not being able to have them. He said, “Well, you know, if it means that much to you, I can always have another one — I still have the parts.”
Xtra: Ha! Really, he said that?
JN: Yeah, he did. He’s been very supportive.
Xtra: What drove you to write this piece?
JN: I had to. It wouldn’t leave me alone. I did obviously get up off the floor, and for a couple of years I sort of danced around the idea and worked things out in my mind. It was a very scary concept to actually stand up in front of an audience and say, “This is my name and this is my story” and have it be so naked.
But it just wouldn’t leave me alone, so I finally started thinking seriously about doing it. I applied for the [Montreal] Fringe Festival three years running because I thought, If I get a deadline, I’ll actually have to write the show.
Xtra: So true!
JN: I wasn’t lucky in the lottery the first two years. I didn’t get into the Fringe, so I didn’t write the show. The third year, I was there at the lottery selection evening, wishing, hoping that my name wasn’t drawn because I had just agreed to go to Africa and write radio plays for children. I wasn’t going to have a lot of time for anything else. So I was standing in the back of the room saying, “Don’t pick me! Don’t pick me!” But the third time’s the charm. My Pregnant Brother came out of the hat.
Xtra: So how long did it take you to write it?
JN: I finished writing the show two days before we opened! That was when we got it into what I thought was a presentable state. I was petrified, but it was amazing. At the end, everyone just leapt to their feet, and I felt such understanding and love coming from the audience. It was a life-changing moment for me.
What was so surprising to me was that I thought this was like a story from another planet. I’ve had such a strange life that I felt like people couldn’t relate or understand, and the complete opposite happened. Even in PEI. I mean, PEI is notorious for being the most conservative place in Canada… you know, potato farmers sitting there with their arms crossed tight during the play, who had been dragged there by their wives. Then we’d have the question-and-answer period at the end — and you’d have the same crusty old gentlemen raising their hands and asking me if my brother was okay.
Xtra: So, maybe the details of our stories don’t matter — what’s human is the overlap in emotional experience?
JN: That’s exactly what I felt. Everyone goes through the same sorts of emotional journeys — in different forms, with different sets of challenges. But we all seem to be searching for the same things… a sense of who we are and a sense of acceptance from everyone else. Especially by our families, because, let’s face it, they have a very special power over us.