Seeing Christine Howey perform her one-woman show Exact Change is both a shattering and uplifting experience.
We feel we’ve run an emotional gantlet just listening to Howey share her overwhelmingly personal story, so just imagine how she feels each time she re-enacts her journey from being born Dick Howey to transitioning to Christine 45 years later.
Sean Derry, co-artistic director of None Too Fragile, said Howey’s story needed to be heard in Akron, and he was right. This story — which includes sobering statistics on homicide and attempted suicide among the transgendered — needs to be told in every city so people can learn to be kinder and more compassionate toward others, even about things they don’t understand.
Before seeing Howey’s show, my understanding of the transgendered community came solely from Oprah interviews and the 2005 movie Transamerica. Now Howey, a Cleveland-area playwright, actress and theater critic, puts a local, painfully real face to the struggles that so many transgendered people endure.
Her play, whose world premiere was last January at Cleveland Public Theatre, is nothing short of poetic. Howey heavily revised the play prior to its three-show run in Akron last weekend, adding 40 percent new material aimed at delving deeper into her biography.
The result is a tightly written, beautifully performed, thoroughly absorbing 80-minute work that takes us from Howey’s birth as Dick in 1945 to her sex-change operation in Brussels and coming-out party as a woman. The play, directed by Scott Plate, is a story about a man who always knew he was a woman, even though he was born inside a male body.
Howey stressed that switching genders had nothing to do with sexuality: As a post-transition Christine told Oprah Winfrey in TV interview footage, “I had to figure out what my gender was before I could even begin to figure out what my sexual orientation was.”
The early scenes of Dick’s childhood are heartbreaking, coupled highly effectively with photos of his youth on a screen onstage. We hear about young Dick wanting to play with girls in the schoolyard, but being pulled away from them and kept with the boys.
Howey’s memories have so many melancholic nuances, from young Dick first experimenting with sitting like a girl to him wistfully cataloging the names of flowers on his mother’s typewriter.
Howey assumes numerous voices, including Dick’s wife, his unsuspecting mother and the vicious teens who taunt the transitioning Christine later.
In the telling, Howey brings us to the depths of despair as she assumes the nasty role of The Enforcer, repeatedly reminding Dick that his life is a lie and egging him on to kill himself. But the story reaches sheer joy during an anecdote in a shoe store, when for the first time a salesman addresses Christine as “Ma’am,” without question.
Howey chronicles Dick growing up, marrying Dinah, having baby Noelle and performing in Cleveland-area theaters. But this man with the beard whose secret no one knows carries such a deep pain and bitterness inside, he takes to the bottle. In one of the play’s most heartbreaking scenes, “Crowded Chair,” Howey recounts how Dick rebuffs his little girl’s attempts to cuddle as he shuts his wife and child out emotionally.
The show is devastating, funny and ultimately satisfying as Dick finds fulfillment as Christine. This story of gender identity is about the journey toward self-discovery, self-acceptance and happiness. In the process of sharing her life, the incredibly brave Howey lays her soul bare.
Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or firstname.lastname@example.org. She is also on Facebook at www.facebook.com/kclawsonabj.