It’s pronounced “here.”
The word is spelled “hir.” And as dramatist Taylor Mac explains in his play of this title, making its regional debut at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, “hir” is the possessive pronoun preferred by transgender people as a universal replacement for his and her. Its proper usage — along with “ze,” for he or she — comes in for some ribbing in the play. Which, it seems, is just one of the indications of the evolved nature of the wit and political acumen of Mac’s dysfunctional family comedy.
Another may be the author’s insistence, noted in the published script, of guidelines for casting the play’s transgender character, Max. “It’s important to me that the actor playing Max,” he writes, “be someone who was a biological female and now identifies as transgender or gender-queer.”
Part of the motivation of Mac — a finalist this year for the Pulitzer Prize for drama for another work, “A 24-Decade History of Popular Music” — was practical, for a group of actors struggling for acceptance, as well as meaty roles.
“People have been appreciating that there is this trans character,” Mac said over coffee recently in Manhattan’s Union Square. As a result, he added, transgender actors “are getting access to regional theaters across America they never had access to.”
“Hir” is not a play on a mission, particularly. With a cast at Woolly of Emily Townley, Mitchell Hébert, Joseph Parks and self-described “gender warrior” Malic White as Max, the comedy, directed by Shana Cooper, falls conventionally, if raucously, into a grand tradition: That would be the deconstructing of American culture by laying out the inanities, hypocrisies and transcendently buoyant paradoxes of the American family.
This family, headed by a chronic disrupter of a mother, Townley’s Paige, who dresses her stroke-disabled husband, Hébert’s Arnold, in clown outfits, is marking the return of the older son, Isaac (Parks), from a far-off desert war. The psychically scarred Isaac comes home to find the family in the “starter home” they’ve never left, in total disarray. “It is the kind of home,” Mac notes in the script, “that, no matter how hard you clean, will always seem dirty.” What has changed radically is his sister, who is now his brother, Max.
For Mac, who describes “Hir” as a comedy of absurd realism, one of the liberating facets of writing the play was incorporating transgender identity not as a mere plot point, but as a poetic theme.
“It uses a transgender person as a metaphor for America,” he says. “Queer people are never allowed to be anything but [themselves]. And here, they’re a metaphor for polarization in America.”
“Hir” is set in California’s Central Valley, where the 43-year-old playwright was born. He came east to train as an actor at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Discovering afterward that he couldn’t even get a foot in the door — “I spent eight years trying to get auditions” — he decided that he had to write for himself. Many times, that meant writing drag parts for himself.
Mac seems slightly amused by the unlikely success of “Hir,” which had its premiere in 2014 at San Francisco’s Magic Theater and later enjoyed a well-received run at off-Broadway’s Playwrights Horizons. (A production was to be part of a previous season at Studio Theatre, but that plan was scuttled.) Its format, after all, is far more conformist than the kinds of high-wire acts Mac usually attempts, as an actor, writer and drag artist. Most recently, his “24-Decade History of Popular Music,” performed in eight, three-hour segments at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, and then in a 24-hour marathon version, had him singing 246 American songs in a dazzlingly architectural array of costumes.
Mac is abridging that production for the road, which will include a one-night engagement at the Kennedy Center next March.
For all the recognition that’s coming his way of late, Mac says that getting his work produced remains a struggle. He’s grateful for the partnership he has forged with Pomegranate Arts, the New York-based producers who work with him on “A 24-Decade History.” For some of the other output of his formidable imagination, though, people aren’t exactly throwing money at him.
“I don’t know anyone in New York willing to do my play set in a mud pit,” he says. Then there’s the wild project he has in mind, composed entirely of performers entering and exiting the stage. Because, let’s face it, Mac says, “no one ever really wants to sit through the middle.”
“I want to reveal and make the world that I want,” he declares. But he’s not complaining too vociferously about the state of his career. As he puts it: “I get to live in art.”
Woolly Mammoth Theatre, 641 D St. NW. 202-393-3939. woollymammoth.net.
Dates: Monday through June 18.