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‘The Body Politic’

Juventas New Music confronts gender politics, and wins

Celina Colby | 5/13/2016, 6 a.m.

“The Body Politic” is the 2016 installment of Juventas New Music Ensemble’s Opera Project. Created by Charles Osburne and Leo Hurley, it tells the story of Iphis, born a girl in Afghanistan under Taliban rule who must dress as a boy to provide for her family. This brings out already brewing feelings that he should have been born a boy. In between these scenes of childhood strife, we see a present-day Iphis, now a man, still struggling for acceptance in his new home of Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

The material, though perhaps too much to unpack in a two-hour opera, is extremely relevant in a contemporary culture where the body has been pulled into the political arena, and castrated at the hands of lawmakers. Iphis’s mother says to him in the first act, “You look like a boy.” And he says, “I look like myself,” a simple distillation of the ongoing gender debate. His mother can only see through binary lenses, where Iphis was born a girl.

Laura Intravia gave a stunning performance as a young Iphis, coupled with the powerhouse performer Alexandra Dietrich as Iphis’s mother Roxana. The two had undeniable chemistry that lent believability to their complicated relationship. Present-day Iphis has a foster mother and brother, but even with the backstory of a dead father, the characters feel undeveloped, serving as foils to Iphis and his mother. There is some connection between the two mothers, who both struggle for peace of a different kind. However, Constance’s conservative outlook in a quiet town feels less justified than Roxana’s lifelong struggle against war and prejudice.

Identity and choice

James Wesley Hunter brought much-needed humor to the piece as Iphis’s drag queen roommate, Eugene. His fabulous wardrobe and upbeat songs diversified the score and offered relief from the tense subject matter. The show culminates in a confrontation between Iphis, Constance and Eugene, where he says, “My body is not a soapbox.” Though a bit literal, the speech gets across Iphis’s frustration at moving laterally from one oppressive nation to another.

The stage for “The Body Politic” is intimate and minimal, featuring only a table and chairs, a few books and a rug made of makeshift sand. Dim yellow lights hang from the low ceiling of the Plaza Black Box and hanging kites allude to the freedom that’s sought throughout the production. The simplicity of the set serves to underscore the simplicity of Osburne and Hurley’s message: We are all human.

The show ends with little resolution, as transgender issues are in the United States. In fact, Hurley and Osburne take the opera into the heart of the fire on May 19 when they present it in the State Legislative Building in Raleigh, N.C. — where lawmakers passed a bill prohibiting local governments from enacting laws protecting the civil liberties of transgendered people. “The Body Politic” may be tackling too large a range of subjects, but they are the right subjects, and the show preaches equality with a passion and talent that can only be admired.