New Play 'Aunt Jack' Offers Updated Perspective on Gender Identity, Roles

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I’ll never forget the first time I saw the 1978 French film, “La Cage aux Folles.”  I was 12 or 13, sneaking a peak on “The Movie Channel,” the first premium cable channel available in the rural Missouri town where I lived. 

Maybe I was sheltered—I wouldn’t be able to log on to AOL for another 15 years—but, I was certainly confused. I could have sworn that the “mother” in that family was really a man! I’m pretty sure the English subtitles didn’t aid my comprehension, either. 

Now, jump forward 40 years. New York-based playwright S.P. Monahan likens their new comedy “Aunt Jack” to a 21st century take on that classic gender-bending tale. The play will receive its world premiere at Empire Stage in Fort Lauderdale, opening July 19. 

“It’s about the 21st-century LGBT family,” Monahan said in a telephone interview. “I’m in my twenties, so I’ve come of age in a more accepting time…or so I thought.” 

The protagonist in Monahan’s story is Norman Sable-Church. After breaking up with his longtime boyfriend, Norman moves across the country, leaving his fathers, George and Jack, in a tizzy. Months later, after Norman learns that George, a prominent gay activist and historian, is in failing health, the young man returns home to make amends and introduce his parents to his new partner, Andy. 

In a crucial twist to the “La Cage” archetype, Jack, a well-known drag performer and Phyllis, Norman’s mother, become dismayed to discover their son is not quite the man they had hoped to raise. Tensions quickly build into an intergenerational confrontation over sexuality, identity and monogamy. 

One of the biggest influences on Monahan’s career, has been a long association with playwright and female impersonator Charles Busch, who Monahan describes as “my Auntie Mame.” 

At the age of 12, Monahan was first cast in Busch’s holiday show, “Times Square Angel.” Busch has since served as a mentor, helping guide Monahan to acclaim with “Diva: Live from Hell,” a one-man show that eventually evolved from a 45-minute sketch comedy into a full-fledged hit Off Broadway musical. 

Monahan identifies as nonbinary.  

“I’m not sure how prevalent that is outside of places like New York. I’ve lived in a bubble. When you grow up in an environment like I have, gender was always something that was an open question. I identified with being a boy when I was a boy, but I never really identified with manhood, yet I don’t identify with transgender or wanting to transition to a woman. Someone told me you don’t have to be one or the other, but as both,” Monahan explained. 

Monahan penned the first draft of “Aunt Jack” four years ago. While attending a writers’ retreat, the young playwright met director and dramaturg Michael Bush, now a South Florida resident, who quickly recognized Monahan’s talent and offered notes.  

After a friend suggested Monahan mount the premiere at Empire Stage, it was the intimate theater’s director, David Gordon, who suggested Bush direct the show, bringing that relationship full circle. 

It will be a big weekend for Monahan, as a second theater company in Vermont mounts its own production of “Aunt Jack,” opening one night later on July 20. While the writer has been participating in rehearsals in Fort Lauderdale, Monahan has not lent input into the other production. 

“It will be interesting to see both,” commented Monahan. “One I had a hand in and the one I didn’t.” 

The world premiere production of S.P. Monahan’s “Aunt Jack” will be presented July 19 – Aug. 12 at Empire Stage, 1140 N. Flagler Dr. in Fort Lauderdale. Tickets are $35 at EmpireStage.com. 


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