If only all gender non-binary kids in conservative small towns had moms like Trisha, the protagonist/narrator of Elise Forier Edie’s 2013 one-woman play, The Pink Unicorn. When Trisha’s daughter, Jo, cuts her hair short and requests to be addressed as “they” instead of “she,” Trisha’s first reaction is not to kick her daughter out of the house or send her to conversion therapy, but to open a web browser and google terms like “genderqueer” and “LGBTQ.” Her second reaction is to seek advice for dealing with this unexpected development from Pastor Dick, the spiritual leader of her church, but when he announces his intention to fight against a decision to allow homosexuals to be ordained within the USA Presbyterian Church, she surprises herself and her community by becoming a local activist for gay rights.
What ensues is a funny and endearing account of a battle on the frontlines of the culture wars, one that reveals both the breathtaking hypocrisy of religious rhetoric and the hope-inspiring transformations that can be achieved when people have the courage to take a stand at the local level. Indeed, although this play focuses on a mother’s outrage over the local school’s treatment of its genderqueer students, its bigger message about the power of people to effect change through committed activism, even when they represent a minority view in a homogenous community, is one that is all the more urgent in our current political environment.
Trisha is the kind of character it would be all too easy to caricature or patronize, but both Edie’s script and Amy Landis’s beautifully nuanced performance wisely choose to pull us deeply into her point of view instead. Ingrid Sonnichsen directs with a deft comic touch, and has made choices for the setting and context that enhance our feeling of connection with Trisha. Instead of staging the play as a formal presentation, as the script seems to encourage, Sonnichsen invites us into Trisha’s kitchen, where she tells us her story while she folds her laundry and bakes up a batch of chocolate chip cookies. Landis is warm and winning as Trisha, roping us in with an endearing southern graciousness, and her chatty friendliness opens us to her perspective.
That’s important, because although we might be tempted to feel smugly superior to Trisha, her journey is one that is only possible because she has the humility to distance herself from such self-righteous certainty, and spending time with her provides a gentle nudge to be skeptical of our own pieties. Paradoxically, the very characteristics that make her a person so alienating to urban progressives – her Christian values and Southern etiquette – are also what make it possible for her to let difference into her personal sphere in a more than superficial way. Quick as she is to stereotype people who don’t conform to cis-gender norms, once her habits of hospitality and charity bring them into her orbit she comes to see past stereotype and love and value them for the people they are. At the same time, her predisposition to sketch the other people in her life with broad caricaturing brushstrokes also complicates our response to her: that is, her tendency to paint mocking and dismissive portraits of gays and lesbians – the very people she is ostensibly trying to defend – provokes cognitive dissonance (in both the character and us).
The play and Landis are both at their funniest when they offer comic insight into the gulf between the ideological right and left. For example, at one point in the narrative Trisha recalls discovering that the ACLU – an organization that she had always been told was doing Satan’s work – was actually dedicated to helping people, like her daughter, who have had their civil rights violated. “Who knew?!?” Landis demands, looking straight at us with deadpan bewilderment. It’s that willingness to step out of her comfort zone and into the unknown that makes Trisha such a model for citizen-activism, and her story such a rich and rewarding journey.