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Tucker Litch explores gender identity, self-image in new play ‘John’

(Isabella Lee/Illustrations director)

By Dannela Lagrimas

June 4, 2022 6:52 p.m.

Tucker Litch is flushing away antiquated notions of gender identity.

For his final production at UCLA, the fourth-year theater student’s play “John” follows the opening of a high school’s gender-neutral bathroom and a student who finds themselves drawn to the space for unknown reasons. With both comedic and dramatic elements, the play explores the protagonist’s gender identity and breaks down commonly held conceptions regarding power dynamics and identity stereotypes, Litch said.

“Theater is a conversation,” Litch said. “I’m challenging the audience to have a conversation with the play and thus have a conversation with me. … I think it’s important to be able to have an open conversation with your audience, especially when it’s something as complicated as gender and transitioning.”

[Related: UCLA student’s final theater project brings the stage to your car]

Originally written as an assignment for one of Litch’s classes, the script for “John” eventually bloomed into his first full-length play, he said. Litch added that his growth as a playwright can be traced through the developments of the script, which include a move toward humor instead of remaining entirely serious. By leaning into outlandish and surrealist tones with uncommon character names such as “Bistro” and “Crawlspace,” for instance, he said he wants the audience to reconsider their expectations for names, genders and spaces.

“John” was rendered from script to stage by student-organized Act III Theatre Ensemble, which selected the script to be produced as its New Queer Play for the year. As the stage manager, third-year theater student Sofía Gonzales said Litch’s script stood out to Act III because it presented a timely story surrounding gender-neutral bathrooms, which are a relatively recent development in queer history. She said the show presented an opportunity for self-reflection, allowing the audience to question and confront their own gender identity.

“What stood out about ‘John’ was Tucker’s ability to create a hilariously devastating story about such a real and difficult journey that many queer individuals find themselves going through,” Gonzales said. “Going through that journey and being able to find the hilarious moments in the expression of gender was really wonderful.”

Because “John” was produced by a student group, as opposed to the official theater department, Litch said he was afforded more freedom and involvement. Although he faced opposition from older mentors who had difficulty understanding “John,” Litch said Act III and its team were better able to understand the play’s message and translate it to the stage with the help of other students and the individual vision and creativity they brought to the project.

While developing “John” granted the behind-the-scenes team artistic liberty, the play’s self-reflective nature extended to the cast, Jacqui Kolker said. Kolker, a fifth-year sociology student, said they were drawn to the lead role of Lumia/John because the character’s arc paralleled Kolker’s own journey with self-image while providing a medium by which their notions regarding identity were questioned. Kolker said they were honored yet challenged by the opportunity to originate a role in a queer work that illuminates the intricacies of gender identity.

[Related: Graduate student explores grief, illness with levity in okay “Still Harvey Still]

One such complexity is that Lumia/John has a difficult time expressing themselves and coming to terms with their own image, an experience Kolker found to be deeply relatable, they said. Although the personal and raw nature of the role presented emotional challenges, Kolker said they appreciated the ability to portray a character who learns what it means to be comfortable with their own identity over the course of the play.

Litch said he hopes audiences leave the play with their worldview broadened by a show that brings in new ideas and builds on recent developments rather than restating what is already known. Beyond UCLA, he said he wants to continue telling queer stories like “John,” which combat dangerous cliches and encourage inclusivity in mainstream media.

“There’s a lot of misrepresentation and mishandling of queerness falling into really harmful stereotypes,” Litch said. “I would like to create queer theater, create queer media that is reflective of a norm, as something that exists without question.”

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