A Black, trans journey through TV and film; plus, inside Beyoncé's 'Renaissance' tour
BRITTANY LUSE, HOST:
Hey, y'all. You're listening to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR. I'm Brittany Luse. And I've got a little theory. Something is about to shift in the culture. You see; we're on the cusp of summer, and things are a little dead - right in time for Beyonce Knowles-Carter to wake it up. This week Beyonce kicked off a major tour for her latest album, "Renaissance."
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UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST: (Singing) Rena-rena-rena-rena-rena-rena-renaissance, rena-rena-rena-rena-rena-rena-renaissance (ph).
LUSE: And according to my producer, Corey Antonio Rose, the self-described Beyonce of audio journalism, this tour is going to be the exact cultural reset we need. Corey Antonio, the tour is coming. Tell us what's on your soul. What are you excited about?
COREY ANTONIO ROSE, BYLINE: I am excited for my Twitter to be livened up again with the resurgence of tour memes. I think Beyonce is one of the most underestimated meme generators through her live tours. I mean, if we're thinking about On the Run Tour with Jay-Z, there's the little Bill Cosby walk and her flowing, purple cape. If we're thinking about the I Am... World Tour with the (singing) say my name. Say my name.
ROSE: She does it every time. And the "Renaissance" album itself is just so entrenched in little references to Black queer culture. I'm excited to see how she brings that and interpolates it for a live audience. She's coming, and I'm quaking.
LUSE: She is coming. And I am totally with you. I cannot wait to see how Beyonce is going to bless us on this tour. So in preparation, we're going to hear all the tea from someone on the ground getting a glimpse of Beyonce's first "Renaissance" concert.
ROSE: Yes, we are. I called up Bilal Qureshi, NPR's senior culture editor, to get the word from Queen Bey's first stop in Stockholm, Sweden.
Bilal Qureshi, welcome to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE.
BILAL QURESHI, BYLINE: Thank you. It's great to be here.
ROSE: I mean, I see the post-Beyonce glow on you. So would you consider yourself an actively buzzing member of the BeyHive (ph)?
QURESHI: Yeah. Actually, I would say I am. And I am very much fully there and have been there for a long time. And, you know, when I first saw her live and the letter B was everywhere at her concert, which happens to be my - you know, it's the way that crazy fandom works. You're like, that's just for me. But it wasn't obviously just for me, but that's how I felt. But, yes - total fan, stan, whatever term you prefer.
ROSE: So you were at the very first stop of the "Renaissance" tour in Stockholm, Sweden. Can you tell me what it was like to, I guess, be in that space and be on the ground and be surrounded by other Beyonce fans? She's about to go on. You don't know what's going to happen.
QURESHI: I mean, I would say that when the lights first went down and the kind of first soundscape that opens the show began, I think you could just tell everyone was really quiet. It wasn't just, like, screaming. I think there was a lot of just curiosity that turned into, like, utter silence when it started.
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ROSE: How did seeing the show change how you think about the album?
QURESHI: It seemed more to me like a great tribute to all those amazing dance records and to queer culture that she was paying tribute to as a CD. That's what it felt like. I think now, having seen it as a concert experience, it feels - not that that is not still present, but it feels bigger than that. It feels, like, almost like a statement about what live entertainment should be or what, like, immersion should seem like. It was always, it seems to me, like, designed to be a huge, like, film spectacle and a kind of intergalactic journey that she was going on as a musician and as an artist and as a person and as a robot on stage. Also, a lot of commentary on technology and the idea of, like, the future and how you hurl into the future by bringing your past with you.
It's not just "Renaissance" in terms of the album itself and those 16 songs and that whole record, but it's this much larger idea of how she is rebooting herself as an artist and as a creator because the show, you could think - and it would work as a perfect concert - could just be a seamless performance of the album, right? It's like a skipless (ph) record that is perfect and perfectly structured. But the way she did it in live format is that it opens with, like, a prelude of songs from her past. The first very song she sang was "Dangerously In Love"...
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BEYONCE: (Singing) I love you.
QURESHI: ...The title song from her very first album. And it's kind of an R&B, slow jams opening - is the start of the show. And then she disappears, and then we start to get this idea that we're now about to hurl ourselves into the future. And then when "Renaissance" starts getting played, it is actually constantly being remixed in with stuff from across her archive.
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BEYONCE: (Singing) Girl, don't hurt nobody, body, body. Move your body. Move your body. Don't need a minute to rest. Baby, I...
QURESHI: And this was clearly an album that was not just an album of 16 songs but an album that she conceived of as something that is really connected to what she's made before and is building from it. And I think in concert form, that's what she delivers - that idea of regeneration and reboot and revival. And I'm feeling a little bit of that with having turned 40 this spring. It's like, how do you bring the best parts of your past with you as you move forward? And to see an artist who's done that constantly and to watch them do it in front of you on stage - pretty incredible.
ROSE: That point that you made about using the past to hurl yourself into the future really reminds me of an African proverb or term. It's called sankofa, and it's - basically means to go back to bring it forward. It means, like, taking your past experiences, taking your memories, taking your legacy and using that as a tool for the future. You know, one reason Beyonce's 2019 concert film, "Homecoming," has been called one of the greatest concert films of all time is because she was able to weave her decades-long musical catalog together in such a cohesive and satisfying way. And we know that this show is a kind of live remix of everything she's ever done from the songs to the outfits, to the iconic choreography. What was the artistic effect of that?
QURESHI: The whole language is, obviously, intergalactic travel in space. And I thought of it as, like, you know, very much like a mashup of, like, "The Matrix" and "Tron" and "Metropolis" and "Ex Machina" and, like, all these kinds of images of robots and spaceships and portals, things that I thought might happen. But that's really the, like, vocabulary of the album. You're seeing kind of things being built on top of each other, and then almost like you're watching a kind of technical reboot or, like, an updating of a software system happening in front of you, if that makes any sense. You know, there are actually robot arms on the stage that are constantly, like, assembling her and taking things that she's wearing off and putting things on her. And so that - and, you know, "Heated," which I really love - who doesn't love?
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BEYONCE: (Singing) I got to fan myself off. I got to fan myself off.
QURESHI: But the fans are actually being, like, flicked around by robot arms. So that's kind of, like, the sort of thing that's so crazy, is that it is a remixing and a kind of catalog overview show like "Homecoming" but in a totally different universe, you know, with big band energy, but with big space energy.
ROSE: Big space energy, come through. I'm seeing her on July 29 at the MetLife Stadium. If there are any eligible bachelors out there who are going to be there...
ROSE: ...Please let me know. I have a question for you. Should I go for the black boots or the silver holographic boots? What was the fashion at the tour giving?
QURESHI: Definitely the silver holographic boots. I would say it was giving a lot of chrome, silver, disco ball mirrors. What you think it is is what it was. I think the Swedish crowd is not going to be able to compete. The Europeans cannot compete with when it comes to America. I'm mostly excited about the American shows. That was one thing that I think was probably missed by being in a kind of minimalist Scandinavian country. For the opening, I think we need some of that American energy. And I'm sure that's going to be there at your show. And I also nothing but hope that that works out for you, too, with the shout-out.
ROSE: Oh (laughter), thank you. Thank you. Bilal, thank you so much for coming on and talking to me about the first night of the Renaissance tour.
QURESHI: Corey Antonio, thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.
LUSE: That was NPR senior culture editor Bilal Qureshi in conversation with the Beyonce of audio journalism, IT'S BEEN A MINUTE producer Corey Antonio Rose. Up next, I chat with journalist and author Tre'vell Anderson about their new book, "We See Each Other: A Black, Trans Journey Through TV And Film." Stay with us.
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LUSE: If you've seen "Paris Is Burning," you remember this iconic scene.
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DORIAN COREY: Shade comes from reading. Shade is, I don't tell you you're ugly, but I don't have to tell you because you know you're ugly.
LUSE: And if you've seen "Pose," you can't help but quote this line.
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DOMINIQUE JACKSON: (As Elektra) If you walk out that door, you might as well be walking as an Evangelista because I only raise winners.
LUSE: And then, even if you haven't seen "Legendary," you have got to know this one.
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LEIOMY MALDONADO: Dramatics in the performance was zero.
My score today is going to be a four.
LUSE: If you haven't put it together yet, today we're looking at trans representation in TV and film.
TRE'VELL ANDERSON: Representation has its good parts. It's got its bad parts. When we only focus on the. good, we never really contend with the state and reality of how we are moving through the world.
LUSE: My guest is Tre'vell Anderson, a reporter who has covered the margins of pop culture for over a decade. They just published a new book, "We See Each Other: A Black Trans Journey Through TV And Film." It's a series of essays that weave together history, personal stories and some of TV and film's most memorable moments. Today we're talking the onscreen hits and misses, the drag queens hidden in plain sight and the women who revolutionized how we see the trans community onscreen and in real life.
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LUSE: Tre'vell Anderson, welcome to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE.
ANDERSON: Hi, Brittany. Thanks for having me.
LUSE: It's absolutely my pleasure. This is a book about representation. You assert that asking the question when is the first time you saw yourself onscreen is a, quote, unquote, "sham of a question."
LUSE: I cackled when I read that on the page. And I loved your explanation. But could you please tell us why do you think that is? Why do you say that?
ANDERSON: I think when we always have conversations about representation, particularly in a post-#OscarsSoWhite world - right? - this question is, like, the leading question. When was the first time you saw yourself onscreen? But I actually think we're doing ourselves and the multiplicity of our identities a disservice because for me, as somebody who is a nonbinary person of trans experience, the images that reflected who I was, say, when I was 4 are not the images that reflect who I am today, right? And when we say, when's the first time that you saw yourself onscreen, it prevents us from asking and finding out, like, the real information that I think is useful in these conversations.
LUSE: You referred to that version of yourself as the me I am today. You had seen glimpses of who that person could be, but the me I am today - you were saying that you still haven't quite seen any one person who is just, like, you know, point-blank period you. You write about, though, people who serve as what you call possibility models - I love that term - those who may offer maybe an aspect of representation that speaks to you - not the total picture but a glimpse of someone who has an aspect to their being that's getting at something that you could imagine for yourself. I'm so fascinated by that framing, possibility model. Talk to us about the utility of a possibility model and what that means.
ANDERSON: Yeah. It's like an alternative to role model, right? And I think it's a rejection of role model because role model presupposes that, like, this is the specific way that one is to embody this particular career, this particular identity. And the reality is all of those people who we might be looking at as role models - they're just actually showing you one way, one possible way - right? - of being an actor, one possible way of being a journalist, one possible way - right? - of being a chef. But there are so many other possible ways as well.
And because at least for me, I feel like so much of the work that I've been doing is about creating opportunities and existences out of the depths of my imagination, possibility is more useful for me than a particular role. And so I talk about Noah in "Noah's Arc" and Miss J. Alexander from "ANTM" and Andre Leon Talley because they did show me, in various ways, pieces - right? - that I've now been able to, you know, throw all in a pot of okra soup, a nice little gumbo situation - right? - to create who I am today.
LUSE: It's, like, about creation rather than conforming.
LUSE: The first chapter of your book gets into the legacy of Madea. For those who may not be familiar, Madea is Tyler Perry's popular and very profitable drag character.
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TYLER PERRY: (As Madea Simmons) I guess nobody told you that I'm Madea, Ma to the damn D-E-A. You understand that? And what I want, I get.
LUSE: Now, I'm not going to lie to you. I wasn't expecting to see her name along the journey of this book, but the discussion was so thoughtful. What part does the character of Madea and other drag personas by Black male comedians - and for people who really may not understand, I'm not talking about "RuPaul's Drag Race" when I say drag personas in this instance. I mean, like, Martin Lawrence in "Big Momma's House" or Eddie Murphy, as you know, Mama Klump in "The Nutty Professor." What part does that kind of drag persona by a Black male comedian play in the Black trans journey through TV and film?
ANDERSON: Yeah. I can only speak about my lived experience, and that was an experience that was filled with a whole lot of Tyler Perry plays - OK? - back in the day. And as I have, you know, come into my own journey, I've begun to see that the jokes that get lodged at a Madea are the exact same jokes - quote-unquote, "jokes" - that get thrown at Black trans women and femmes, right? They're jokes about our physicality. They're jokes about our big hands, our broad shoulders, our hairy faces. And noticing that leads me to think about the ways in which that comedic fodder often does manifest as - right? - the very real-world violence that Black trans women and femmes are experiencing. And so your jokes, Dave Chappelle - your jokes do cause violence. But we don't talk about it that way, right? We think that it's just fun and games. But in a world right now in which drag is being banned...
ANDERSON: ...Where are the straight men who are now famous for their drag characters? But we don't think of Tyler Perry as Madea as a drag queen. We don't think of Robin Williams as Mrs. Doubtfire as a drag performance, right? And I wonder why that is. I have a theory in how that logically follows to the ways that we as Black trans women and femmes in particular are disproportionately experiencing the violences that our communities are facing.
LUSE: You say you have a theory. Can you share the theory, or is it still cooking?
ANDERSON: My - it is still cooking. But, you know, part of me writing this book was about getting out some ideas for the sake of conversation and discourse. So I'll share. I don't mind. My theory goes back to reading about the era of vaudeville performances in particular...
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UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, singing) And on a great big battleship you'd like to be working as chambermaids.
ANDERSON: ...And how when you look at the archive of reporting at that time that was documenting what was going on, there was always so much attention paid to the difference in identity between the person onstage that you see performing and the person offstage. They always made sure to, like, tell us - right? - that when he's off stage, he's a man's man. He's throwing back drinks. He's, you know, having all these, you know, skirmishes with people. He's such a..
ANDERSON: ...Man's man - right? - as a means of, to be clear - right? - dissociating the straight man from any sort of idea or sniff of homosexuality. And so I think now about the ways in which all of these people have gotten away with sort of kind of saying that these characters are inspired by the real Black women in their lives, not necessarily always paying attention to how many of these images are stereotypical and, you know, perpetuate so many, you know, anti-Black and anti-woman violences against Black women. But, you know, we can get to that later. And then on top of that, the fact that they have the luxury of taking off the wig and distancing themselves from those characters when they want to, distancing themselves from the communities that those characters may be conflated for - and here we are.
LUSE: You tied a lot of things together just now. You really, really did. You tied a lot of things together. And also just...
ANDERSON: You know, my mind be running, Brittany.
LUSE: No, no, no, no. It seems very possible and very likely that that same dynamic inherent in that vaudeville performance has carried through over 100 years to today. Like you said, the same "jokes," quote-unquote, comments, remarks that are supposed to be funny that are being made in the entertainment realm are, you know, funneling right back into how actual Black trans people are treated in real life. You still have a lot of, like, positive association and fond memories - right? - with family relating not just to the films of a Madea, but even, like, in some ways, you relate to some of Madea's character traits, right?
LUSE: Madea is a figure that we - you and I specifically and also many Black people, you know, in this country and around the world - have cultural ties to. How do we, I guess, reconcile those two things? How do we recognize how much harm that the proliferation of that stereotype does to the Black trans community and Black queer people in general?
ANDERSON: You know, we can walk and chew gum at the same time. I believe in my people, right? I feel like oftentimes, you know, particularly when we criticize Black art, there's this expectation that, like, you can only love it or hate it. And I reject that and say I love and hate it at the same time because it's complex, you know? It's nuanced. And I think we, again, do ourselves a disservice when we don't wrestle with things, when we subscribe to some sort of binary - right? - that erases everything that's in the middle where the truth most ultimately lies. Right? I'm always quoting Madea. I think the best way to, for me, show that care is by seriously grappling with both the intention and also the impact of whatever is out there.
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LUSE: Coming up, we delve into the world of reality television and the actress who left such a strong mark on TV that she deserves an entire chapter.
I want to turn to the world of reality television. A lot of your book explores the landscape of trans representation in the reality TV space from Isis King on "America's Next Top Model" to Zeke Smith on "Survivor." You say that reality TV has given us some of the, quote, "best and most varied," unquote, representations of Black and trans folks on TV. Why would you say best and most varied? Like, what's behind that? And also, what is it about the structure of reality TV that makes that variety so robust in your mind?
ANDERSON: There's just more varied representation of the different types of Black trans women that you can be, from an, you know, Isis King on "America's Next Top Model" and the way she navigated, you know, the two seasons that she did that show to a Leiomy Maldonado. If you watched "America's Best Dance Crew" back in the day, she was a contestant in a group called Vogue Evolution on that show. Lil Mama was a judge on that show. There was a moment in which Leiomy, expressing her frustration by the nature of the competition, storms off.
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MALDONADO: My heart really wants to be here, but in a way, I'm not happy. The fact that I have fans out there - you know, I'm the face of transgender. That's what keeps me motivated.
ANDERSON: And Lil Mama uses that moment to essentialize womanhood and to tell Leiomy that she's not being a good representative of her trans community because she was angry, right?
LUSE: Right. And she didn't - and Lil Mama did not put it as you put it.
ANDERSON: She did not.
LUSE: She used some pretty coarse language (laughter).
ANDERSON: Yes. And it obviously was a "different time," quote-unquote. You know, folks like to say that, you know, and all of that. And she did apologize, right? And then you have a Laverne Cox on "I Want To Work For Diddy" - right? - before she was on "Orange Is The New Black."
ANDERSON: It's just more options, more ways - right? - to see Black trans womanhood show up. And then on the scripted side of things, it's a very finite list of types of characters that we've seen thus far.
LUSE: Now, somebody who has done so much work, I think, on screen and off screen to hold space for these conversations about representation a lot over the past 10 to 15 years is somebody who got their start in reality TV - Laverne Cox. When I think about Laverne Cox, I also think of her as somebody who's holding a lot of space in public for having conversations about representation, about Black and trans representation and what it means. You dedicate a chapter in the book to Laverne Cox, and I think that she's very interesting for a lot of reasons, but specifically, for a sort of turning point that it almost seems that she represents in a timeline - right? - going from a person who's appearing on reality television to becoming, you know, an award-winning actress. I want to know why you wanted to dedicate an entire chapter to her and in what way she may represent to you a turning point for the culture.
ANDERSON: Yeah. I mean, I always go back to Nick Adams, who is the director of transgender media and representation at GLAAD. He says there is a pre-Laverne era in terms of the type of conversations and work that GLAAD was asked to do and post-Laverne - right? - post-that world of Sophia Burset on "Orange Is The New Black." It wasn't a man dressed up in a wig - right? - playing a trans woman. But Laverne Cox - she was a doll on screen, and she was a doll on the red carpet. Her visibility, her physical presence shifted things because it had to. For many people, Laverne Cox was the first trans person that they saw on screen. The pressure, the burden, that which Laverne has shouldered over this last decade - it is unspeakable, and yet we need to speak about it.
LUSE: You know, in the book, you also dedicate some time to someone who isn't a character on TV or film but absolutely shaped the way that we think about trans people and their lived realities. Monica Roberts was a trailblazing journalist whose blog, TransGriot, chronicled the lives and deaths of Black transgender and nonbinary folks, and she's credited with changing the way trans people saw themselves reflected in journalism.
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MONICA ROBERTS: Black trans people exist. We are more than just tragic transsexuals, and we are definitely capable of leading in this ongoing human rights fight.
LUSE: How do you see this book as continuing the legacy that she started?
ANDERSON: I put the work that Monica Roberts did into the same conversation as the work that Ida B. Wells did.
LUSE: Yes, you did.
ANDERSON: And I do that very purposefully to acknowledge the immense barriers that Monica Roberts overcame which has led to - right? - this more inclusive shift we see in terms of the reporting and coverage of trans communities because there was a time in which, if you read about a trans person in the media, you didn't even know they were trans because they were being misgendered, right? They were being deadnamed. And Monica Roberts would email news outlets across the country. She would contact news outlets across the country and tell them you've got it wrong. This is the name they went by. This is how they were referred to in community.
Monica Roberts painted a fuller picture of the Black trans experience - that if we did not have TransGriot, the record would be incomplete because we would only have The New York Times. We would only have the LA Times. We would only have The Afro-American. She covered culture. She covered, you know, what was happening on the reality shows with Laverne and Isis and Leiomy, you know, and she was a one-woman show. For me personally, she showed me that I could be both Black and trans and a journalist in an industry that time and time again tells me and tells us that we must disavow parts of who we are in order to do our jobs objectively.
LUSE: That is a really, really moving tribute. Tre'vell, thank you so much for coming on IT'S BEEN A MINUTE and talking to me about this book.
ANDERSON: Thank you for having me.
LUSE: That was my conversation with journalist Tre'vell Anderson. Their new book is "We See Each Other: A Black, Trans Journey Through TV And Film." This episode of IT'S BEEN A MINUTE was produced by...
BARTON GIRDWOOD, BYLINE: Barton Girdwood.
ALEXIS WILLIAMS, BYLINE: Alexis Williams.
LIAM MCBAIN, BYLINE: Liam McBain.
ROSE: Corey Antonio Rose.
LUSE: Our editor is...
JESSICA PLACZEK, BYLINE: Jessica Placzek.
LUSE: Engineering support came from...
KWESI LEE, BYLINE: Kwesi Lee.
LUSE: Our executive producer is...
VERALYN WILLIAMS, BYLINE: Veralyn Williams.
LUSE: Our VP of programming is...
YOLANDA SANGWENI, BYLINE: Yolanda Sangweni.
LUSE: Our senior VP of programming is...
ANYA GRUNDMANN, BYLINE: Anya Grundmann.
LUSE: All right. That's all for this episode of IT'S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR. I'm Brittany Luse. Talk soon.
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