Jacob Weitlauf’s big number in this year’s “Saturday’s Voyeur” is a fast-paced vocabulary lesson.
As the University of Utah student performs “50 Ways to Name Your Gender,” words appear on a screen behind the stage. Trans. Queer. And then lesser-known terms: Verself, terself, perself. Hirs, ze. Tri-gen, high-femme, bi-gen and neutrois.
“Call me a non-bine, no he-she combine; We like being defined, just listen to Ve,” Weitlauf sings. “It isn’t my member, that speaks to my gender; You gotta remember, we just wanna be free.”
Weitlauf’s casting marks the first time in the annual satire’s 41-year history that a nonbinary actor is performing as a nonbinary character. And the story arc of Weitlauf’s character, Jayden, is essentially a public service announcement — educating and enlightening Salt Lake Acting Company audiences about gender identity, gender-neutral pronouns and a growing but still marginalized community.
Weitlauf, a third-year student in the U.’s Musical Theater Program who uses the pronouns “they” and “them,” said they were surprised by the role.
“‘Saturday’s Voyeur’ is known for its progressive approach to liberal politics, and representation of the gay male narrative has often been a part of that,” they said in an email.
“However, there are very few characters within the theater world that are written as nonbinary, and most Utah audiences haven’t been exposed to a story like Jayden’s.”
SEEING ‘SATURDAY’S VOYEUR’
The 2019 version of “Saturday’s Voyeur” ranges from President Donald Trump’s alleged ties to Russia and his love of Fox News and Twitter, to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ new insistence on the use of its full name, to the Utah Legislature’s replacement of voter-backed initiatives and Mitt Romney’s predestined Senate victory.
When • Now until Sept. 15
Where • Salt Lake Acting Company, 168 W. 500 North
Tickets • $50-$60
Information • saltlakeactingcompany.org
A preference for pronouns
By December of each year, “Voyeur” director Cynthia Fleming said, creators Nancy Borgenicht and Allen Nevins might have a concept in mind for the annual musical, a sharp critique of national and local politics, religion and culture.
But that idea often changes and the show takes shape as they get closer to rehearsals. While looking over 8-by-10-inch photos of the 2019 cast with Nevins, Fleming noticed Weitlauf’s picture on the table.
“I turned to Al, the playwright, and said, ‘Jacob’s pronouns are they and them,’” she said, explaining she wanted to make sure Nevins knew to use the gender nonspecific pronouns. “Because when an individual’s preferred pronouns are knowingly not used or acknowledged by others, it creates an unsafe environment.”
Having 21-year-old Weitlauf, a SLAC newcomer, in the cast inspired Jayden’s character and story.
Julie Silvestro Waite plays Sister Jane, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square, who initially dismisses requests to refer to Jayden as “they” and “them.”
After Jayden refers to a New York Times article describing more than 50 gender-neutral pronouns, Jane groans, “How is a person my age ever going to figure out 57, and counting, gender types, weird pronouns and made-up names?!”
Although her age isn’t clearly stated, Silvestro Waite said in an email that Jane likely is close to 40, making her an older millennial or younger Gen Xer.
JOIN THE SLAC PARTY
Salt Lake Acting Company’s annual fundraiser includes a performance of “Saturday’s Voyeur,” food, drinks, meeting the cast, and live and silent auctions.
When • Aug. 10; party at 5:30 p.m., show at 7 p.m.
Where • Salt Lake Acting Company, 168 W. 500 North
More than 60% of Americans in those generations are likely to have heard about the use of gender-neutral pronouns, according to a January 2019 Pew Research Center report.
About three-quarters of young people — born after 1996 — say they have heard about the practice. Half of America’s boomers, now 54 and older, and nearly half of those over 73 in the silent generation are aware that some people use gender-neutral pronouns.
But data for the number of people who identify as nonbinary is limited and flawed.
While the character Sister Jane might not fully understand gender identity or her own microaggressions toward Jayden, the “Voyeur” character Brother D intentionally singles Jayden out and ridicules them, like in the following scene.
Brother D: It’s this queer and this illegal that displeases the Lord. And tell this gay that he needs to shape up or ship out and repent!
Jayden: Brother, I respectfully ask you to refer to me as they, not he.
Brother D: And tell him to take a wife and have a quiver of 10 children.
Jayden: Excuse me, but I no longer identify with he and him and should be addressed using the pronouns “they” and “them.” I’m gender nonspecific.
Brother D: What is this, some new little, pervert cult come to Utah?
Because “Voyeur” undergoes revisions during workshops and rehearsals, actors can advocate for their characters and their journeys, Weitlauf said. They played a significant role in educating the cast and crew and in crafting Jayden’s scenes.
Many people still confuse sex and gender — while sex is biological, gender is an expression, Weitlauf said.
“Nancy and Allen were upfront in their lack of knowledge about current conversations around gender identity and realized that most of their audiences were in the same position,” they said.
“This was as much of a learning process for them as it is for most patrons that walk into the theater.”
While Borgenicht and Nevins researched gender identity, Fleming said, Weitlauf’s input was invaluable.
“I was constantly checking in with Jacob, and then sending notes to Al, and then Al would revise [the script],” she said. “ ... It was a beautiful, beautiful collaboration.”
Sharing their own experiences and educating audiences through Jayden’s perspective has been a special treat — but it’s not without its challenges, Weitlauf said.
It was important to find the right language to share newer ideas about gender politics, and each word is important because audiences can digest only so much new information at once, they said.
And they wanted to find the balance between Jayden’s humor and advocating for an underrepresented community.
“Laughter brings people together like nothing else and is often the easier way to make a message stick,” Weitlauf said.
“However, the reality is that a lot of gender politics aren’t a joke — the LGBTQIA+ (especially transgender individuals of color) face violence and discrimination because of the ignorance of many communities.”
‘Empathetic recognition and acceptance’
Toward the end of the musical, as Sister Jane and Jayden perform “Blue Skies,” she uses their preferred pronoun for the first time.
And as they sing, Jayden finds self-acceptance.
Although resistant at first, Jane is willing to learn, Silvestro Waite said. She, too, is learning to shift readily into using correct pronouns and new terminology.
“It’s a struggle for a lot of people and can really be frustrating on both sides,” Silvestro Waite said. “But the more we talk about it and the more we can put that language out there, the more commonplace it will become. It just takes awareness and good intentions.”
“Blue Skies” follows a line about the LDS Church wanting Jayden to go to conversion therapy, a widely discredited practice that seeks to change a person’s sexual orientation and/or gender identity.
The church teaches that same-sex attraction itself is not a sin — but acting on it is. It has disavowed past therapies to change orientation, although therapists with LDS Family Services are willing to help members who “desire to reconcile same-sex attraction with their religious belief,” a spokesman has said. Earlier this year, it abandoned a policy that deemed same-sex married couples “apostates” and had generally barred their children from baby blessings and baptisms.
Fleming, the director, said “Voyeur” calls out the church “mostly because of their past statements, their past rules, their past behavior ... how they regard homosexuals or the LGBTQ community and gender in general, and how hurtful it’s been for many, many people.”
The hope, she said, is that the show can be a catalyst for change. And Silvestro Waite believes that change may already be happening.
Sister Jane, she said, represents Latter-day Saints who love the church and want to be obedient, but also are more progressive members who recognize problems around them and don’t feel their voices are being heard.
And if Jane can change, why can’t the church — or our communities, or ourselves?
“It’s an empathetic recognition and acceptance of every individual,” Silvestro Waite said, “which in turn binds us together as a human race and always makes our communities stronger.”
Fleming said she once teared up watching Weitlauf perform during rehearsals as she imagined a gender nonbinary audience member seeing them on stage.
“To be able to have perhaps a role model or be inspired, it kind of got to me in the best way,” she said.
‘I left the theater on a high’
Since moving to Salt Lake City, Weitlauf said, they have been surrounded by a supportive and open-minded community. That wasn’t always the case in their native Kentucky. Weitlauf said they receive more pushback on social media from people they knew while growing up than they do from new people they meet.
And while some people might be confused about Weitlauf’s pronouns, they often find people are willing to learn and understand.
After a recent weekend show, an elderly woman made her way to Weitlauf.
She is an active Latter-day Saint, she explained, and she often finds herself defending the gay community. Her nephew is gay, she said, and she loves him dearly.
The woman said she goes to shows like “Voyeur” to “keep herself educated so that she doesn’t fall into the habitual ignorance she sees within her community,” Weitlauf recalled.
She then asked for additional help understanding the pronouns Weitlauf sang about earlier.
“After engaging in conversation with her for a minute,” they said, “she felt confident that she would be able to accurately address people she meets that don’t identify within the gender binary.”
Then the two hugged.
“I left the theater on a high,” Weitlauf said, “... knowing that I was able to help someone open their mind.”