October 1, 2019 at 9:05 am PDT | by John Paul King
Underage gender identity is a family matter in “A Kid Like Jake”

When Daniel Pearle’s “A Kid Like Jake” was first performed in 2013, the world was a very different place.

Early in the second term of the Obama administration, the play – about two young Brooklyn parents grappling with the possibility that their 4-year-old son’s fondness for playing dress-up might be an early attempt at alternative gender expression – was met by a progressive and open-minded cultural climate that was ready and willing to welcome it into the growing public conversation about gender identity.

Nevertheless, six years after its initial debut, as Pearle’s re-tooled version is poised to make its West Coast premiere in an IAMA Theatre Company guest production at the Pasadena Playhouse, it’s no longer safe to assume the show will be welcomed with open arms.

That’s not because understanding about gender dysphoria has evolved, although it certainly has; the playwright himself has commented that when he first wrote the script, “it was before ‘Transparent,’ before Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox, before ‘gender expansiveness’ was part of our cultural lexicon.” The changing landscape around the subject, however, was always part of the dynamic that made the play tick, and the rewrites undertaken by Pearle after his work on the film version (which debuted at Sundance in 2018 and went on to a limited theatrical run) presumably bring the conversation up to date for a new production.

What makes its reception an uncertain proposition is the shift that in the culture since 2016, the regressive backlash from conservatives that has reminded us that the struggle for LGBTQ acceptance – especially with regard to trans and other gender non-conforming individuals – is a long way from being over.

Discussion about the issue becomes particularly virulent when it relates, as it does in Pearle’s play, to someone who is underage.

Consider, for example, the case of Desmond Napoles, better known as “Desmond Is Amazing,” the now-11-year-old drag performer who has been in the public eye since an appearance at 6 in a Jinkx Monsoon music video. Identifying as gay and genderfluid, Desmond has gone beyond the fame of his popular Instagram presence and his public performances to become a widely recognized advocate and spokesperson for LGBTQ issues. Yet he has also been met with criticism from social conservatives, who claim that his supportive parents are “sexualizing and exploiting” a minor. Social media is rife with other such cases, where online bullying and even death threats are a daily occurrence, arising from the kind of outdated thinking that conflates gender identity with sexuality, and being queer with pedophilia.

With that kind of heated tempest as part of the social backdrop, it’s easy to imagine that “A Kid Like Jake,” might be returning into a political firestorm of its own. Yet according to director Jennifer Chambers, speaking to the Blade in advance of the show’s October 3 opening, it’s a play that slips past the political to focus on the personal.

“The play is about Jake, but it’s also not,” she explains. “We never see Jake, at all. He’s talked about, but he never appears onstage as an actual character. It’s about his parents, and how they work out where they are with their son.”

She elaborates. “They are considering getting him into special programs for kindergarten, and as they’re going through the school application process, things start being revealed about who he is, or who he might be. It becomes a discovery about gender identity, and how as parents… when you think things are one way, and your child is finding their own self and their own voice… how as parents, you navigate that. And then when that hits upon your old belief systems, your old ways of thinking, how that affects your relationship with your son, and your marriage, and how you navigate through that.”

Reflecting on how the play handles the situation, Chambers adds, “I think these parents really begin from a place of ‘we’re doing absolutely the best things for our son, we know what’s best for our kid and we’re making exactly the right decisions for him’ – and then as things progress, as things get to revealed, that gets called into question. There are the older blind spots, and biases – fears, really – about who your kid is, or might be, and about how because of it he… or she or they… is not safe. You want to protect your kid, but you also need to allow my kid to be who they are. It’s really all about the parents’ journey, and how they open up and fall apart and get put back together inside of that conversation.”

As for many of the hot button-issues surrounding young people who grapple with their gender identity – the prejudice, the bullying, the sexualization – the director says the play doesn’t really go there. “We do touch on a few of those boundaries, of where, inside of our biases, we might go; Alex, the mom, out of her own fear, out of her sense of feeling the ground being pulled out from under her feet – there’s a time when she says things that, if she were thinking and were not fueled by that fear, she would absolutely never say. It touches into that – but otherwise no, it’s very much contained inside the family, and inside of the process of just applying to kindergarten.”

By keeping the focus squarely on the people directly involved in the process of discovery depicted in the play, “Jake” keeps the situation free from the complications imposed by a larger world, allowing its characters to explore the limits of their own boundaries – a process that is complicated enough on its own. It’s this breaking down of what has become a public issue into the private, the setting of the conflict in an intimate arena instead of a social one, that made Chambers – who is herself the mother of two children, seven and nine – want to jump at the chance to direct this new production.

“More than anything I really love Daniel’s writing,” she says, “I love his rhythms, I love his humor. But also, I’m a parent, myself, and my kids are growing. It’s a process – how you support your kids, when they’re your babies and they’re so much a part of who you are, and then they grow and they differentiate. It’s brutal, and it’s beautiful, and it’s heartbreaking – and I don’t think there’s an easy way to navigate it, as they become their own self. The essence of that is what hooked me into this and what keeps pushing me. It’s so simple and so complicated at the same time, which is what is so exciting to me.”

Given the involvement of a director with such a deeply-felt personal connection to the material, working with a talented cast that includes Sharon Lawrence, Olivia Liang, Tim Peper, Sarah Utterback, “A Kid Like Jake,” is likely to carry much of that excitement to L.A. audiences as it continues its Pasadena Playhouse run through November 3.

For performance schedule and tickets, visit iamatheatre.com.

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