by Nancy Churnin
May 23, 2018
It's been a rough year for Zander Pryor. The 15-year-old high school freshman avoided the school cafeteria in his Dallas public high school, where he says he was bullied for being transgender.
That's why it meant so much to Zander to get a call in September to tell him he'd been cast as the transgender teen, Max, in the regional premiere of Taylor Mac's 2015 off-Broadway hit, Hir, at Stage West in Fort Worth. The show opened May 17 and continues through June 17.
"I was exhilarated, dumbfounded and really happy," Zander says in the lobby of the theater after the Sunday, May 20 matinee. "It got me through the year. I love every aspect of playing Max. Knowing that I had this to look forward to has been the light at the end of the tunnel."
Zander was born female but identifies as male. Transgender is when someone does not identify as the sex assigned to them at birth. The role, Zander says, has increased his pride in being transgender because Max is comfortable and assertive about who he is.
Being chosen over older and more experienced actors to score this part, his largest role to date, was a welcome affirmation of his talent, too.
This tender, tough, powerfully performed tragicomedy begins with Isaac (Blake McNamara), an ex-Marine who is dishonorably discharged and returns home to find a changed family. His brutal, domineering father, Arnold (Bob Hess) can barely talk or move after a stroke. His mother, Paige (Cara Statham Serber), who finally has the upper hand, puts clown makeup on Arnold, dresses him in a nightgown and takes pride in not cooking or doing housework.
Paige also celebrates how Isaac's sister, Maxine, has transitioned to the gender-nonconforming Max, and follows Max's lead in using the pronouns ze instead of he or she and hir instead of him or her.
At first Isaac is confused and disturbed. Then he and Max begin to connect as brothers, even as they struggle to find their places in a family that is revealed to be as dysfunctional as their scarred and flimsy house, its flaws hidden by quilts and decorative items.
Zander had been on the radar of Garret Storms, the show's director, since Zander played transgender roles in Second Thought Theatre's Straight White Men and Uptown Players' The Tribute Artist, both in 2017.
"Zander is an incredible talent," Storms says, sitting beside Zander at Stage West. "He is such an intelligent person, as is Max, with the wisdom of an old soul. In the play, Max says he is not new, he is old. That old soul is something Zander brings to the role."
Zander says that playing Max has helped his confidence. He has had problems with some of his peers accepting who he is, although his teachers and some students have been kind and supportive. And he found immediate and unflagging support from his family when he came out as transgender in December 2016.
Zander's mother, Wendy Koster, describes this year as "a struggle" and a "very, very long school year" for Zander. She says she and Zander's dad and brother "couldn't be prouder of Zander" for being "passionate, directed, hard-working and willing to fight the battle to be his true self."
The beauty of the story is that Hir isn't only about gender, Storms notes. It helps explain that gender is a piece in the larger puzzle of what it means to be human.
"I feel this show is creating a space to include someone who is transgender in the narrative of the American nuclear family and what that looks like now or what it may have always looked like behind closed doors," Storms says.
At the same time, in the course of bringing Isaac up to speed, Paige and Max offer a crash course in what it means to be transgender.
Zander hopes that the show, which contains adult themes and strong language, will start a conversation that will lead to more understanding of people who are transgender. Post-show discussions started with the May 20 performance and continue through the end of the run.
Zander, who likes to write as well as perform, looks forward to a better year ahead. He preferred that his current high school not be named, but he's been accepted to Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, where he will be focusing on theater starting this fall.
"What's special about theater is that it gives us a chance to empathize with people in marginalized groups," says Zander, who notes that productions of the show have opened from Chicago to England to Australia.
"I'm glad this show is being produced in so may places. It can open people's eyes."