The New York-born storyteller hopes their new play, Morris Micklewhite And The Tangerine Dress, will help children find the courage to accept themselves
BY KATIE CHAMBERS, CO-DESIGNED BY WILLIAM BOLES AND SOTIRIOS LIVADITIS & COSTUME SKETCHES BY CAROLYN ROSE SULLIVAN
Morris Micklewhite loves to wear a tangerine-coloured dress because “it reminds him of tigers, the sun and his mother’s hair”. When some of his classmates tell him that boys can’t wear dresses, Morris is confused, but no less determined – he wants to wear his dress, no matter what people say. He embarks on an intergalactic quest to find out more, with only a few trusty sidekicks and his vivid imagination for company.
Using imagination to break binaries is at the heart of playwright juliany taveras’ work. They’re a playwright, poet, photographer and all-round storyteller whose centres Afro/Indigenous diasporas and trans lives at every turn. They’re now telling Morris’ story, adapting the children’s book Morris Micklewhite And The Tangerine Dress by Christine Baldacchino and Isabelle Melanfant for the stage.
taveras has been working on the script for over a year, and it’s now a matter of weeks away from the play’s premiere at the Children’s Theatre Company, Minneapolis, on 10 October. When we meet, they delve into what’s running through their mind: anticipation, pressure, and, above all, optimism.
How are you feeling in the run-up to Morris Micklewhite And The Tangerine Dress?
It’s starting to feel more real. This is the first time I’ve been commissioned by a theatre to do a larger production, so it’s very exciting.
Part of what I love about being a playwright is you get to be part of both the introverted and the extroverted side. I get to have the solo creative process, and then the collaborative aspect after. Now we have costumes and designers and, soon, audiences! I’m really pumped – I can’t wait to see how it all comes together.
Why do you want to tell this particular story?
I feel very lucky that the Children’s Theatre Company reached out to me. I know Peter Brosius, the Artistic Director, and I’m honoured to be part of his final season. I read the story and I was like, immediately yes!
It’s a simple story in terms of what happens, but what it speaks to is much deeper. It’s about being yourself, whatever that means for you! For Morris, it’s his dress. I love that it’s a very sensory experience. He loves how the dress sounds, how it feels, what it reminds him of. It’s not about this larger social narrative of what it means to wear a dress, he just says, “I like it! It pleases my five senses!”
We’re not saying that Morris is queer or trans – Morris is a child who loves this swishy magical orange fabric! But there might be young people in our audience connecting with queerness. We have a brilliant young trans actor in our cast, and I love getting to hear her experience. It’s a reminder that you can know a lot about yourself really early on.
You talk a lot about imagination and crafting new worlds. Do you see your writing as an escape from society or a way of commenting on it?
I think the two things are super connected. Growing up, I was that kid who would get a stack of books from the public library and get through them in two weeks. Part of what drew me to storytelling was escapism: I may live in this one town, in this house, with these rules, but while I’m reading this book, I can escape.
That’s definitely still present in my writing. I want to create these other worlds to break free of the confines of my social reality. But when we do that, it helps us step back a little bit and get a different view of our reality. We’re having a conversation with the world we’re in.
I like bridging these gaps. If we love a fictional world, can we make our world more like that world? When I write, it’s almost like “See! What if we did things like that!” I’m a begrudging optimist.
What would you say are the biggest challenges in the work you do?
If you’re part of a historically underrepresented or disenfranchised group, there’s more pressure on your stories to be perfect. If you’re the only trans show in a year, there’s going to be a lot of pressure on that story. Feeling like I have to represent all Caribbean people or all non-binary people can be really hard. A lot of artists are already perfectionists – to feel this extra social pressure to not fail my community is a lot.
But it can’t be on me! There are millions of ways to capture that experience, and we should be allowed to be messy and to fail. All I can do is tell my truth and hope for the best.
Also, I am in a writer’s guild and we’re on strike right now. It’s a blessing being able to do this as my job but it also can add a stressful layer. My creativity is necessary for my survival.
What does queerness mean to you?
Queerness to me is having the courage to express freely, even in the face of people or institutions that are telling you not to. In my queer community we say a lot: “No matter what world we were born into, we would be queer because we would question the limitations put on us!” That’s at the heart of queerness for me.
Also, thinking about my Caribbean and Afro-indigenous lineages – there have been so many worlds before this one. It’s easy to be born and think that this is how it’s always been. We’re always changing, as a species, as a planet. Change is what being alive is. Queerness for me really taps into that idea: we are so multiplicitous, and we get to choose who we are every day.
Do you feel trans representation in storytelling has improved during your career so far?
Again, it’s that begrudging optimist in me – it’s happening! Little by little! It’s going to take a while for us to catch up because there was a long time where our stories were repressed. I’m excited, but there’s a long way to go.
I don’t just want to see more representation of trans people, I want the way they’re spoken about to change. Some people use words like “inclusion” and “seat at the table”, but I like to ask “Who’s table? How many tables?” I don’t want us to have to be special and exceptional and picked by the existing creative system. I want us to have the agency to tell our own stories.
What would you like a child to take away from Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress?
There are as many messages as there are people – I hope everyone walks in and has a totally unique experience. So in that sense, who knows?
But, at the heart of it, I really hope that Morris’ courage inspires young kids to have that same courage and self-expression. It’s very easy when we’re young, when we develop some sort of personality, if at any point that gets rejected or rebuffed for us to say to ourselves “Ok, well that didn’t go well, let’s not do that any more!” What I love about Morris’ story is we get to see him grapple with that, and ultimately tap into his courage and inspire some of his classmates to be courageous as well.
So I think that’s a thing I want people to take away: it’s okay to express yourself, to be who you are, and that is a courageous thing to do.
Is there any subject matter/type of writing you haven’t tried yet that you’d like to try?
I’ve been reading a lot of queer YA fiction – there’s so much good stuff out there, and now I’m like, I want to write a novel! I also really want to write for video games. I think they’re a really amazing form of storytelling.
You’re an aspiring gardener – tell me about your gardening!
My mum grew up in a very indigenous way, in a small village, working with the land and the animals and growing their own food, and she shared that experience with me. I grew up with lots of plants, even though we were in a crowded city and our backyard was concrete.
I did have my own garden a couple of summers ago, and that was beautiful, to get to grow my own tomatoes and flowers and strawberries. I’m a beginner, but I think our relationship with the land is so beautiful. It’s one of the reasons I’m thinking about leaving New York City for the first time in my life. I’d like to try a different environment and slow down a little.
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