In May 2016, I was contacted by DG member Paul Kalburgi about his new play, In The Tall Grass which just happened to originate in the Bishop Arts district in my neck of the woods. I had to find out more.
Teresa Coleman Wash: Paul, tell us about the play.
Paul Kalburgi: In The Tall Grass is a verbatim drama about the murder of Shade Schuler, a 22-year-old transgender woman whose body was found dumped in a field in Dallas in the summer of 2105. Shade’s story is set against the backdrop of wider atrocities across the US, which saw at least 23 trans or gender-nonconforming people murdered in 2015 alone – more than the total number of trans murders than in any other year that advocates have recorded, and tragically a number which is rising year on year.
TCW: How did the play come about?
PK: I moved to Dallas from London just days after Shade’s body was discovered and was shocked to learn that her murder was part of a national epidemic which wasn’t being reported in the national press; I felt compelled to react. Transgender women of color are suffering an unforgivable injustice - they are suffering systemic, institutional abuse and neglect at every level; including being denied legal support, healthcare, job opportunities and housing in towns and cities across the US.
TCW: Where did the title of the play come from?
PK: Throughout the world, trans people are marginalized and forced to exist in the underworld, or, 'in the tall grass'. As human beings, we all have a survival instinct and tragically, many of our transwomen are forced into a life of crime, drugs and sex work. The average life expectancy of an African American transgender women is just 35! That's a shocking statistic. Shade Schuler lived, and sadly her body was found, in the tall grass in a field in Dallas.
TCW: Why did you decide to use the verbatim technique to tell this story?
PK: It allowed me to take an immersive, journalistic approach to the telling of this story, whilst forging lasting relationships within the transgender community. Verbatim theatre felt to me the most authentic way to tell a story like this on stage. I have always been very clear in saying that it's not my job to give transwomen a voice... what I am trying to do it to use my skills as a playwright to give their harrowing stories a platform, to be witnessed up close by the widest audience possible. When they audience sees the play, I want them to take on my role and witness their testimonies as though first-hand.
TCW: You were brand new to Dallas when you started work on the project, how did you go about building trust within the local trans community?
PK: The impact of Shade’s murder sent ripples throughout the city, which were palpable. What I found when I first started reaching out to arrange interviews was a community who wanted to be heard. For some, Shade was a personal friend and so people were keen to be involved in the project and share their personal stories. I think the honesty and integrity that verbatim theatre brings to the stage gave my contributors confidence in my intentions.
TCW: What impact do you think the play will have?
PK: It is my hope that it will spark a flame. There is a beautiful quote in the play, "if you don't know a trans person, get to know one, and love on them as hard as you can". If everyone who sees In The Tall Grass can leave with a better understanding of the reality of life for our transwomen, and with that sentiment in mind, then maybe we have hope for change. Perhaps one of the most powerful pieces of audience feedback from the R&D workshop reading was "America needs to hear this story". For me, stories like this cannot be kept exclusively within the community, they need to be seen and heard by people outside of these circles, those who are unaware of the atrocities taking place every day in our cities.