Below is what I sent to the directors of the reading:
Talkback questions for MJ Kaufman's SAGITTARIUS PONDEROSA
Joshua Bastian Cole
First of all, I want to thank Keith and Gretchen and Upstream Artists' Collective for inviting me to host this talkback for SAGITTARIUS PONDEROSA, and I'm so sorry that I'm not able to be present. Thank you as well to whomever may be conveying these discussion questions on my behalf.
I am a big fan of MJ Kaufman, and I've been a big fan especially of this play for years. MJ sent me the script while he was developing the play at Yale, and I did get to see that production as well.
What's really exciting to me about a staged reading of this play, as opposed to a full production, is that we get to hear the stage directions. Paula Vogel talks about stage directions as “love notes from the playwright” and I think what's particularly important about the stage directions for SAGITTARIUS PONDEROSA is that Archer is always referred to as Archer on the page and with he/him pronouns. Archer is not the only character to change his name in the script: Pops is variations of Bob and Robert Jason, but always Pops on the page, and Archer is called Angela and Angie by others but is always Archer on the page. It's nice to see this especially because the legacy of characters with name changes tends to refer to the original name, for example Cesario who is always Viola on paper.
And with that, I actually want to start with the “love notes” from MJ at the very beginning:
Central Oregon desert on the edge of a Ponderosa Pine forest. The forest is also Archer’s family house and Grandma’s room at the old folks home. There are always multiple settings going on at once. It’s important that the rhythms, the kinetic energy across different spaces be coordinated.
There’s a gigantic majestic Ponderosa Pine. She never goes away.
One of the things that fascinates me about this play is the transgression of time and space. I study trans dramaturgy, and while there are tons of cis playwrights who maneuver through time and space in beautifully impossible ways (I think of Sam Shepard here), I think there's something particularly trans about the blurry boundaries of “inside” and “outside” in this play. I also think temporalities are queered when ghosts repeat the past at the end and moments are relived, fulfilling Archer's queer trans desire to be seen and heard by Pops.
My first question is about the omnipresence of the Ponderosa. “She never goes away.” Who or what does the Ponderosa represent in this world? Why is “her” bark in the love potion? Why is it the clandestine meeting place for Owen and Archer?
My next question goes back to the idea of Pops hearing the name Archer. Hearing is a major theme of the play. The hearing aid that may or may not be functioning. How Grandma and Peterson don't hear each other but are in sync in some alternative way. Self-naming is a proclamation and an important part of trans identity and trans validation. We call it out, but as Robert Jason reminds us, “You’re the ones that will be saying it a lot.”
Discuss naming, the meaning of names, and hearing chosen names.
Astrology is a big part of the play and is not only important to the central character, Archer, but is also in the title, a title character. Sagittarius time has so much meaning in the play as do fire signs. I'm not an expert in astrology, but I wanted to point out that both Archer and Owen are 29, one year into their Saturn Returns. I think it's important to recognize Archer as being in Saturn Return, a time of upheaval, chaos, and renewal for all, not just trans people. Owen alludes that Archer is “lost in the woods,” and I think it's possible for cis audiences to conflate feelings of uncertainly with a fallacious misconceived notion of “gender confusion.” Archer's age is pressing to the people around him.
Discuss the boundary of turning 30, and the pressure to marry.
My next question is about another of MJ's love notes, this one to a costume designer:
ARCHER has purple flannel handkerchief hanging out of his back pocket.
OWEN notices it.
ARCHER notices OWEN noticing it.
If you don't know what this is, MJ is referring to what is known as “hanky code” or “flagging.” It's a part of queer culture that became popular starting in New York City in the 70s. Flagging a colored and/or patterned handkerchief in your back pocket, “flagging,” signifies to others what your sexual preferences or self-identities are. There are charts that can tell you what all the colors and patterns refer to, but generally wearing it in your left back pocket means “top” and the right pocket means “bottom.” Archer flags purple flannel for “trans dude”, but the side is not specified.
So, is Archer a top or a bottom?
My last question is suitably about the ending. The play resolves happily, all the familial relations intact and seemingly healthy. We have the sense that Pops's ghost has possibly seen Archer and made peace in saying goodbyes. But for me, as a trans spectator of this play, I'm always left after reading or seeing this, with a sense of devastation. I feel that Archer never really did get to have that conversation with Pops, that his mom and grandma think of him as a spinster, and that Owen has somehow fallen out of Archer's life forever (as though there's no such thing as social media.) The desire to be heard, seen, and acknowledged is out there dangling like one of the Ponderosa's branches.
What do think? Is Archer devastated by feelings of lost opportunities or has he reached a state of fulfillment by the end? I wonder if trans and cis people with have different opinions.