By Jenn McKee
When I spotted trans performer Becca Blackwell’s photo in University Musical Society’s 2017-18 season program, I recognized them (Blackwell’s preferred pronoun) immediately as one of the performers who appeared in Young Lee’s “Untitled Feminist Show,” which UMS brought to Ann Arbor early in 2016. Though that show had almost no dialogue, red-haired, non-binary, charismatic Blackwell had left a strong impression.
So when I learned that UMS was now bringing Blackwell’s solo show “They, Themself and Schmerm” – an autobiographical, one-person show with elements of stand-up comedy – to the Arthur Miller Theatre for its No Safety Net series, I was really excited to see it.
And my anticipation was rewarded at Wednesday night’s opening performance.
The 70 minute show begins with a short film parody that takes as its inspiration Corey Haim’s 1989 video diary, “Me, Myself & I,” which supposedly follows the former teen idol around for “a day in the life.” In truth, Haim had been sexually abused as a child actor in Hollywood, and while struggling with drug addiction, he released “Me, Myself & I” – which shows him playing hockey and tennis, and driving around Southern California, and doing a fashion shoot, thus demonstrating how wholesome he is – as an attempt to jump-start his stalled career. Haim died in 2010, at age 38, of a drug overdose, making the film’s camouflage and duplicity all the more heartbreaking.
In their artist statement, Blackwell noted that while perusing YouTube for inspiration for their one-person show, they found Haim’s 36 minute film; and because Blackwell also suffered from sexual abuse as a child, they saw themself in “Me,” and thus used it as a jumping-off point.
So at “Schmerm”’s start, we hear the poppy synth soundtrack from Haim’s film and watch Blackwell on screen, coyly flirting with the camera, and drifting by on an ice cream sandwich pool float. After a few minutes, though, Blackwell finally appears on stage and launches into their live act.
“Schmerm,” by the way – a fun word that I can’t seem to stop saying – is the term Blackwell coined for the verbal confusion people have when stumbling over what to call them. “A schmerm is a schmear of gender,” Blackwall says. “The sound of gender clapping and then clasping its own hand.”
Given our recent societal fixation with bathroom assignments and gender, a good portion of Blackwell’s show is dedicated to relaying their experience in both men’s rooms and women’s rooms. As Blackwell reports, they’ve been repeatedly screamed at in women’s rooms; and even when they once exposed themself in order to prove they were in the right place – because if we all define gender by way of genitals, that should do the trick, right? – a security officer still removed Blackwell from the restroom.
But Blackwell felt liberated once a male friend pointed out that everyone avoids eye contact in the homophobic men’s room. A problem arose, though, when Blackwell went into a stall, began to pee, and realized that the position of her feet would be a dead giveaway. (Hilarity ensues.)
While it’s jarring to hear Blackwell breezily, repeatedly mention the sexual abuse they suffered as a child (including a priest’s unwanted attentions), the choice does offer a solution to an artistic problem with no good answer: how do you acknowledge ugly truths in a show that you want to be rooted in laughter?
This may, in fact, be part of what’s so electrifying about Blackwell’s show. Fans of stand-up comedy – and I count myself among them – have likely never heard hilarious perspectives from a non-binary trans artist before, because we don’t tend to see comics like Blackwell featured on stage or on TV. Plus, because comedy causes us to lower our defenses, Blackwell’s observations land with an added dimension of joyful discovery.
No, not everything in the show (which Blackwell keeps changing and re-shaping) hits the target – a segment wherein Blackwell sits on the lap of a male audience member in silence for a couple of minutes didn’t seem to yield much – but most of it does, and that’s largely due to Blackwell’s irresistible charm and confidence, their quick wit, their ability to laugh at themself (and us), and mostly, their joie de vivre.
Inevitably, while watching Blackwell, you think, “How could someone who’s been through so much awful stuff be so happy with themself, and with their life?” But they are. Through “Schmerm,” Blackwell conveys a warm, loving embrace of both themself and the world that doesn’t know quite what to do with them.
And amazingly that, by itself, made me feel happy and more hopeful, too.
“They, Themself and Schmerm” runs through February 3 at the Arthur Miller Theatre, 1226 Murfin in Ann Arbor. For showtime and ticket information, visit ums.org.