There are a lot of special things about Christopher Shinn’s new play Teddy Ferrara—now in the Owen Theatre through March 3—but one of the greatest is the young, diverse cast. A key member of the ensemble is actor Jax Jackson, the first transgender actor to appear on the Goodman stage. In Teddy Ferrara, Jax plays a transgender male student named Jaq, who is fighting for the voice of the LGBTQ community within the university, which has been stricken with tragedy. We spoke with Jax about his experience as part of the Teddy Ferrara cast.
How did you find out about Teddy Ferrara?
Well I knew about Chris’s plays through theater school—his plays are really good at putting a spotlight on young actors. He writes very well-rounded characters and is really good about capturing them as people. So I knew his plays going in, and Chris and I have a mutual friend who saw a reading of Teddy Ferrara and recognized the role [of Jaq] as something I would be good for. I kept my ear to the ground and came [to Chicago] to visit friends and one of them said that the Goodman was looking for a transgender man. And here I am! That was very exciting and doesn’t happen very often.
|Jackson in Teddy Ferrara
What were you expecting, going in to the rehearsal room for Teddy Ferrara?
I had no expectations whatsoever. I have been out of the theater world for a couple of years working in New York, making money, trying to paying bills. I had kind of wiped my slate clean and tried to come in with fresh eyes and learn the process all over again.
Did you know anybody in the cast coming into it?
Rashaad [Hall] and Adam [Poss] and I all went to DePaul together. We knew each other from that—John Rooney, the assistant director, and Colin Sphar, an understudy, also went to DePaul. I also knew Fawzia Mirza, one of the campus police and an understudy as well, from film work we’ve done together.
In what ways do you feel your character’s experience as a trans man in college is similar or different to your own?
Being trans and in college is not an experience I had. I came out and started transition after I graduated but I do recognize a similar track in the sense that my whole world was all the sudden like, “if I can change my body to affirm my gender, what else can I change?” I started to pay attention to more social activism and listen to the struggles of people in the LGBTQ community, in the disability community, in communities based on race. I was hearing the stories of other marginalized groups and feeling solidarity with them, and so I started to become an activist. And that is the part of me that is very similar to the character.
What do you feel like Jaq’s main message is in the play?
I think Chris wrote it into the line where he is dictating a speech that he wants the president to give, along the lines of: we are all kind of implicated and responsible for each other. As hard as we work to try and be good—and I do believe everyone tries to be good—we still fail at certain things and have hidden parts of ourselves that we don’t acknowledge or don’t want to acknowledge. [Jaq says to the president:] “That’s the part that you need to be thinking about right now, not the 99 percent of you that wants queer people to live, but the one percent of you that wants queer people to die.” And I think that is really true. That is the message that he carries through, and is willing to go to seemingly radical lengths make that message heard, because he doesn’t feel like it is being heard anywhere.
Are there particular challenges to working as a transgender actor?
It helps you weed through what you know you can’t play. When you are going through “Should I audition for this? Should I audition for that?” there is a limited amount of things that you feel like “yes I can definitely do that, I am what they are looking for.” So that is a benefit and a curse. I already have my next project lined up but I know I am going to have to work really hard to find my next one after that. Hopefully that changes one day. Hopefully someday there are more trans performers that are going out for more roles that are written for trans people, and the stories of trans people of color get told as well. Hopefully we are on a good path to get there.
What do you have coming up next?
It is a musical called Lesbian Love Octagon. I play another transgender guy named Jerry whose girlfriend previously identified as a lesbian until she started dating him and now she doesn’t know what to identify as.
Catch Jax in Teddy Ferrara now until March 3 in the Owen Theatre. Get tickets now!