The trouble started with insects. Soon enough, a misunderstanding over the ancient theatrical tradition of actors playing characters of different genders landed one Houston theater company squarely on the culture wars’ front lines.
In late April, Main Street Theater opened its production of “James and the Giant Peach,” British author Roald Dahl’s 1961 book about a young boy who escapes his abusive home life with the help of magic crystals, chatty insect companions (including a glow-worm), and an enormous piece of produce. As with other shows produced by Main Street’s Theater for Youth division, its four-week run at the MATCH was split between public performances and those for students bused in from all over Greater Houston.
In the stage version, adapted in 1982 by Richard George, the glow-worm is a minor character, part of a menagerie of insects who inhabit the giant peach as it flies over the Atlantic Ocean. Sullen and lazy, it is not thought of highly by its fellow insects, but it does provide an indispensable service: Its light helps James and the other characters see during their journey.
The problem with Main Street’s production, however, wasn’t the glow-worm’s attitude. It doesn’t have many, but in this context the character’s most important line is “I am simply a lady firefly, with wings.” Because the role was taken by a non-binary actor perceived as male-presenting — and who also played one of James’ mean aunts in the show — the situation got intense when a parent complained about the cross-gender casting to the Spring Branch ISD school board.
Before long, and quite incorrectly, word spread that “Giant Peach” was, in so many words, packed with drag queens. The Instagram account @htxkidsfirst, which has about 4,800 followers, posted an out-of-context, outdated photo of the cast member in question, who is also a member of Houston’s drag community, as well as a few screenshot messages purportedly from angry parents. Spring Branch ISD responded by canceling several upcoming class trips to the play, citing “concerns raised about the age-appropriateness of the performance,” according to a statement the district sent to families affected by the cancellations.
However, no drag was involved in “Giant Peach,” either here or in the previous times Main Street has mounted the production, notes the theater’s director of marketing and communications, Shannon Emerick. In fact, casting a male (or male-presenting) actor to play a female character is hardly unusual. In instances such as “Giant Peach,” where a play calls for many more roles than are actors available, it’s downright necessary.
“It quickly became clear [that] no, there’s no drag performance in the play,” Emerick said, “but then it didn’t matter because then the topic became, ‘Well, you still have a man playing a woman, and that’s drag.’ No, no, that’s actually not true.”
Both Houston Kids First and Spring Branch ISD did not respond to multiple requests to comment for this article.
As we understand it today, drag — as in men donning super-stylized wigs, gowns and RuPaul-height heels — is a relatively recent development, often traced back to Victorian England. But it didn’t matter here. Within a few days, multiple local news outlets — and then the Washington Post and Britain’s The Guardian — picked up the “Giant Peach” story, tying it to the recent surge in legislation targeting drag-related events. This poor glow-worm had the misfortune to stumble into the middle of a conservative-led campaign to curb LGBTQ+ rights in multiple states including Texas.
A long tradition of cross-casting
Cross-casting, or casting roles written for one gender with an actor of the opposite (or non-binary) gender, is actually as old as theater itself. Western theater began in ancient Greece, where female roles were instead played by men or boys. In a cruel bit of irony, Greek theater arose out of rituals worshipping the god Dionysus, whose rites were chiefly enacted by women. However, because Greek society firmly relegated women to domestic matters, theatrical productions quickly became the exclusive province of men.
This practice continued until well after the Renaissance. In William Shakespeare’s day, as imagined in the Oscar-winning 1998 film “Shakespeare In Love,” things could get complicated — one theory about the possible origin of the term “drag” holds that it began as an Elizabethan acronym for “dressed resembling a girl.”
“You’ve got this guy who’s writing plays, and he’s got all men in them,” said Jack Young, professor of acting at the University of Houston’s Katherine G. McGovern College of the Arts. “Then you have certain characters that if they’re playing women and they have to go on an adventure, you can’t run around as a woman. It’s too dangerous. So the women characters decide to go on, in masks, as men.”
This scenario surfaces in a handful of Shakespeare’s best-known plays, including “Twelfth Night,” “As You Like It,” and “The Merchant of Venice.” In “Romeo and Juliet,” perhaps the most famous of all the Bard’s works, the iconic balcony scene was especially delicate because “[Juliet’s] at the top, but it’s a guy playing [her],” said Young, also longtime director of the Houston Shakespeare Festival. “That’s why Romeo doesn’t climb up on the balcony to kiss her, because that would mean that we’d have a boy coming up to kiss a boy. All of a sudden, the illusion would be blown.”
Following Shakespeare’s death, gender roles were but one of the issues puritanical British ruler Oliver Cromwell’s followers had with Britain’s theaters, which — due to what Parliament labeled their “lascivious mirth and levity” — were shuttered during the English Civil War Cromwell had sparked and not reopened until the restoration of Charles II to the English throne in 1660, 18 years later.
“There is a certain point of view, if you read the Bible a certain way, that God made you as you are and you should stay in your lane,” said Young. “That’s a really useful thing to tell people if you don’t want people getting in your way.”
Some theaters becoming wary
Ever since, theater has often carried a whiff of the transgressive. When women stepped onto the stages of European opera houses in the 18th and 19th centuries, notes Young, it was often playing young boys in so-called “pants roles” such as Cherubino in Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro.”
A couple of centuries and more than a few scandals later, cross-dressing featured in a number of successful Broadway musicals dating back to at least “South Pacific” in 1949, and extending to latter-day Tony winners “La Cage Aux Folles,” “Rent,” “Hairspray,” and “Tootsie,” based on the 1982 film for which Dustin Hoffman won the Best Actor Oscar. Several other ‘90s flicks helped further boost drag into the pop-culture mainstream: “Mrs. Doubtfire”; “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert”; and “The Birdcage,” which is of course a retelling of “La Cage.”
Indeed, one of Broadway’s hottest tickets right now is a new adaptation of the classic Jack Lemmon/Tony Curtis cross-dressing comedy “Some Like It Hot,” by composer Marc Shaiman (“Hairspray,” “The Little Mermaid”) and co-authors Matthew Lopez and Amber Ruffin. With 13, it leads the nomination count ahead of the Tony Awards, which air on Sunday.
But Broadway is one thing; Houston another. The volatile reaction to “Giant Peach” is already making other local theaters wary. Stages just opened a pair of drag-themed plays, “Drag Wonderettes” and “The Legend of Georgia McBride,” at its George Theater; both run through July 2. Both shows were programmed long ago, explains artistic director Kenn McLaughlin, but instead of allowing Stages to blow off a little steam coming out of the pandemic, they arrive at a culturally fraught moment not exactly conducive to letting it all hang out.
“We’ve done a lot of heavy plays [recently]; it’s like, let’s get out there, let’s have a party section,” he said. “That was what I intended. I never intended to be, nor do I have any interest in being, the center of a political conversation about this. These pieces are about entertainment.”
Thing is, a handful of bills in the Texas Legislature’s just-concluded session have now made it even more difficult to experience many theatrical shows — especially anything drag-related — as simple “entertainment.” Senate Bill 12 proposed fining business owners $10,000 for hosting performances deemed sexually explicit, and charging the performers involved with a Class A misdemeanor.
Earlier drafts of the bill targeted drag performances more directly, but the version approved by the Legislature on May 28 criminalizes “accessories or prosthetics that exaggerate male or female sexual characteristics” accompanied by suggestive gestures. “Advocates said this addition is aimed at drag queens’ props and costumes, which is evidence lawmakers are still targeting the LGBTQ+ community,” noted the Texas Tribune. The bill now awaits Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s signature.
While the session played out in Austin, “Giant Peach” played to sold-out houses at MATCH, to the tune of up to 300 students per performance, for the remainder of its run. Only a handful of area schools followed suit with Spring Branch ISD’s cancellations, Emerick said, and the schools that scratched their field trips also accepted vouchers for performances next season.