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Queer visibility, queer joy, queer life “is a Cabaret”

The Gender and Sexuality Center’s first stage production was a deeply moving musical journey through trans life at a time when visibility is more important than ever.
Image by Sommer Wagen
Lead vocalist Rick X. Hoops performs alongside drummer Aerynne Holmes (back) and guitarist Fred Nolte (left) in “Queer Life: A Trans Narrative Recital” on Thursday. The GSC’s debut production recontextualizes musical numbers into a trans narrative.

“Queer Life: A Trans Narrative Recital” was a creative, complex and deeply moving stage production from the University of Minnesota’s Gender & Sexuality Center for Queer & Trans Life (GSC), led and produced by GSC program coordinator Rick X. Hoops.

The cabaret, put on during the week of Transgender Day of Visibility, was a medley of musical theater numbers and contemporary songs recontextualized to fit the transgender experience. “Cabaret” perfectly describes the informal, welcoming atmosphere the production created in the Coffman Union Theater. 

Hoops said they based the show on their own experiences, but the end goal was to create something broadly relatable.

“I had this random thought one day of the idea of a life cycle kind of narrative to describe transness,” he said. “It’s based on my experience but I think it’s a really universal narrative as well.”

The narrative traveled across four sets of performances, from the curious fascination of discovering queerness as a child to the grief of leaving one’s life behind to embrace their trans identity. From the clumsiness of queer love to navigating the world through new youthful eyes, ultimately landing in the unabashed joy of fully embodying oneself as a queer person for the first time.

Cabarets usually take place in a nightclub or restaurant while audience members dine and drink. In this case, GSC provided chips and soda as well as masks, pride stickers and pronoun pins.

But that informality by no means translated to an unpolished performance. The vocalists delivered powerful performances that beautifully captured the complexity of the transgender experience, from insecurity to devastation to lust to euphoria.

Hoops opened with “Ring of Keys” from “Fun Home,” the musical adaptation of prolific lesbian comic artist Alison Bechdel’s 2006 graphic memoir of the same name. The song describes Bechdel as a child encountering a butch lesbian for the first time and indescribably recognizing herself in that person. “Queer Life” puts the song in a trans context.

“As a queer kid, Rick felt relief seeing that it was possible to have a future that didn’t align with the societal expectations they had been taught,” according to the program notes.

Hoops’ expressive performance of this lighthearted song set the tone for the cabaret, the “Ring of Keys” bringing to mind the life cycle allegory they had envisioned.

Bookending the first set was a rocking, booming performance of Alanis Morissette’s “Unprodigal Daughter” from the 2018 jukebox musical “Jagged Little Pill.” 

Hoops sought to capture the angst of trans adolescence and the excitement the shift to adulthood can bring. 

The outro of the song punctuated set one with defiant conviction: “I’d invite you but I’m busy being unoppressed.”

By far the most emotionally resonant number was Hoops’ performance in set two of “She Used to Be Mine” from the 2015 musical “Waitress,” which they said before the set was devastating when put into a trans context.

“It’s very emotional because it’s like looking back at the version of yourself that got you here and not really recognizing that person but needing to be grateful for [them],” Hoops said.

Hoops proved themself right with their stunning and indeed devastating rendition of the song. The emotion in the room was palpable and visible on their face as they sang to their past self — to all the past selves of queer and trans people:

“She is messy, but she’s kind/She is lonely most of the time/She is all of this mixed up and baked in a beautiful pie/She is gone, but she used to be mine.”

Tic Treitler, a first-year student in the Bachelor of Fine Arts Actor Training Program, capped set two with a beautiful rendition of “So, Anyway” from the 2008 musical “Next to Normal.”

Other standout performances included Hoops’ humorous rendition of “Changing My Major” from “Fun Home” and University vocal performance student Sumaya Roble’s of “Love Like You” from the animated series “Steven Universe.”

The fourth set finale consisted of two songs sung by Hoops representative of queer joy, life and resilience: “Cabaret” from the musical of the same name and “I Am What I Am” from the groundbreaking 1983 gay musical “La Cage Aux Folles.”

“So what if I love each feather and each spangle?” they sang. “Why not try to see things from a different angle?”

After the main performance, the cast fielded questions from the audience in a “Talk Back” session, adding another layer to the show’s core theme of visibility.

“What’s more visible than a stage performance?” Hoops said to laughter.

Community members of all ages populated the audience, from queer elders and families of the cast to students to a young child. Everyone who got the chance to speak expressed their amazement of and gratitude for the production as well as hope for more GSC productions in the future.

One last comment came from an audience member who said they had only been in the Cities for two weeks, having recently arrived from another country. Still, they said they were profoundly affected by the cabaret.

“Even as a stranger I was affected by this,” they said. “All over the world, there are people going through this. We all have the power to go out and change people’s lives.”

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