BWW Review: ANDI BOI Continues a Conversation at Dallas Children's Theater
Despite the rise in anti-trans legislation and violence that has occurred in recent years, the arts community has stepped up and begun actively reasserting its commitment to equality and acceptance while shedding a brighter light on the lived experiences of the trans community, especially trans youths. The most recent entry in this program of arts activism is Dallas Children's Theater's Teen Scene Players' production of ANDI BOI. This original work by a local DFW playwright Bruce Coleman runs through February 16.
Over the course of ninety minutes, ANDI BOI tells the story of Andi, a trans boy starting high school after transitioning over the previous years while being homeschooled. While Andi's mother and new teacher are more than supportive in helping Andi adjust to his new surroundings, Andi is faced with opposition from more conservative-minded parents and peers who do not fully understand what it means to be trans. Andi must decide how to face these conflicts as they arise during his first day. Does he proudly assert his identity and educate those around him or does he keep his head low and just try to survive?
The play's subplot, which I shall return to shortly, has all the teens getting passionately involved in an augmented reality monster-hunting game akin to the craze inspired by Pokémon Go several years ago. The game rewards players who collect as widely diverse a monster pack as possible, with all the monsters' unique talents combining to create an even more impressive and powerful monster. You can parse the rest of the metaphor for yourself.
Coleman's original script, which has been workshopped several times over the preceding months, has its hits and misses as many original works do-though the effect ends up being as uneven as it is mildly charming. Much of the dialogue, especially between the teens, sounds more like something out of a mid-2000s teen comedy than a more contemporary slice of adolescent life. For example, I don't know that I've heard anyone seriously call someone else a punk-a** since I took freshman gym, and today's teen girls are far more likely to have crushes on the Sprouse twins than Justin Bieber.
That being said, the script shows its strengths when it allows its characters to speak openly and honestly, which occurs more often than not during extended monologues where Andi or his mother try to explain the messy, conflicting feelings driving their actions over the course of the day. Zander Pryor charms as Andi, putting on a winning smile that is innocent and endearing without being cliché or grating. His final monologue toward the end of the show, in which he takes as brave a stand as can ever be expected from a fourteen-year old, drew more than a few tears from audience members, a testament to Pryor's talent for speaking directly and honestly. A moment that could have come across as didactic feels undoubtedly sincere, no doubt speaking to the actor's own feelings and experiences.
As Andi's mother Mrs. Winters, Jennifer Kuenzer similarly tugs at the heartstrings. Though her written dialogue can tend toward the melodramatic at times, she maintains a motherly sincerity that manages to express all the little emotions a parent might experience when sending their child off to a new place, from giddy excitement to barely-hidden frustration. While Mrs. Winters is as supportive as any mother can be, Kuenzer shows that this transition is difficult for her as well and that even the best of allies fall short from time to time.
The remaining ensemble cast is similarly capable, though special recognition should be given to the young actors who comprise Andi's new friend group at school. Shy'peria Brown, Kadar Wesley Price, Wynn Droz, and Christian Arrubla have clearly worked through their material, exploring all the messy emotions and thoughts that arise when encountering an idea new and unfamiliar. Even as the four joke and tease one another with ease, they each have developed distinct characters who respond to Andi in their own unique ways. Perhaps most notable is Arrubla's performance as Kai, the embarrassed teen who loathes being doted on by his mother but finds a surge of strength when defending Andi. Kai may not fully understand what it means to be trans, but he knows what it means to be a good person.
As mentioned earlier, throughout the play, the teens engage with one another while playing the phone game "BittieBeasts," collecting new monsters over the course of the show in between heart-to-heart conversations. Toward the end of the play, audiences have a chance to participate in this game (to an extent) by downloading the DCT: ANDI BOI app on their phones and following the cast's instructions to see the monsters appear in augmented reality on their screens. It is genuinely impressive that DCT teamed up with a talented group of animators, software engineers, and app developers to create an experience unique to this production, a daring and fun creative choice that opens the door for the use of more nuanced technologies in future shows across the city.
As cool as the app is, the necessary explanation of the monster game (and the belaboring of its function as the play's central metaphor) can often drag the show to a near-glacial pace. Much of ANDI BOI's initial moments are spent explaining the rules of the game to audiences, delaying any actual plot or character development. Further logistical details are scattered throughout the script and-while they are not nearly as intrusive as the aforementioned scene-often feel like a forced formality than something to actively be excited about. In other words, the concept is interesting and the final execution is impressive; anything related to the app in between these two points is a chore.
All in all, the importance of ANDI BOI lies in its central premise: the lived experiences of one trans boy as he struggles to make his way in a world that is not as always as loving and accepting as we would like for it to be. Thankfully, DCT's latest original production continues a much-needed conversation about how we can best support and understand one another, especially the youngest and most inspiring among us.