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If you can't stop reading Trump news, see this dysfunctional American family comedy

Written by
Dee Jefferson

Just…catch up. The world is going forward. There’s no time to be worried about gender. Gender isn’t radical. It’s not even progressive. It’s an everyday occurrence.”

This line in Taylor Mac’s family drama Hir is delivered by the 17-year-old transgender ‘baby’ of the Connors family, Max, but it might be right out of the playwright’s mouth – or, indeed, that of Anthea Williams, who is helming Belvoir’s forthcoming production. As Williams tells it – and contra to much of the media coverage – Hir is not really a play about gender, even though Max’s family members spend a lot of time talking about Max’s transition, and the play is named for a gender-ambiguous pronoun.

Williams says, “When Max says that line, it has echoes to me of talking to my father about feminism, and – like so many young progressives – saying ‘What we need to worry about is the world, and looking after each other, and the environment; can you just deal with these issues [feminism, gender] and get on with them – because there are other things that are more urgent.”

Director Anthea Williams (centre) with 'Hir' cast (L-R) Helen Thomson, Michael Whalley, Kurt Pimblett and Greg Stone
Photograph: Daniel Boud

The director describes Hir as a play about place, about transition, and about contemporary America. It was written before Trump ran for President (it premiered in 2014 at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre) but is premised on “the failure of white Western masculinity” and the decline of America’s white working class.

“The patriarch of the family, Arnold, has been replaced in his job as a plumber by a Chinese American woman. And then he had a stroke. And his wife Paige thinks it’s fabulous. She talks about this power that white mediocre men used to have, thinking they were doing everything for the world when they weren’t even lifting their own weight.”

Hir starts with the return of ‘prodigal son’ Isaac, recently discharged from the military’s ‘Mortuary Affairs’ department, to his ‘prairie-style’ family home in the central valley of California. What he finds is a different kind of battleground: his abusive father is incapacitated, his mother is on a campaign of self-discovery that involves tearing apart all the old regimes, and his younger sister Maxine is now Max, and prefers to be addressed using the pronouns ‘hir’ (instead of her or him) and ‘ze’ (instead of she or he).

Kurt Pimblett, Greg Stone and Michael Whalley in ‘Hir’
Photograph: Brett Boardman

“Everyone in the play is in transition,” says Williams. “Max is just the most overt.” There’s a woman who has been mentally and physically abused by her husband for years who is transitioning out of that relationship; there’s an army vet with drug issues and PTSD who’s transitioning back into civilian life; there’s Max, who’s in transition; and there’s Arnold, who is finding out who he is now that he’s had a stroke.

“The play is addressing the fact that if we change, there are people who are going to win and lose. There are people who are suffering, and what is the ‘progressive’  responsibility to them? Is America going to run away from its past and its responsibility to be new and fabulous – and forget about all the Arnolds? Or is America going to bring everyone along on the journey to the ‘new’?”

Hir runs until September 10 at Belvoir St Theatre, Surry Hills. See what else is on stage this month in Sydney. Also: Taylor Mac is coming to Australia.

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