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The Huntington News

The independent student newspaper of Northeastern University

The Huntington News

The independent student newspaper of Northeastern University

The Huntington News



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‘Mermaid Hour’ breaks stereotypes, celebrates transgender identity

The cast of “Mermaid Hour” poses for a photo. David Valdes set the play in Boston because of the Boston Children’s Hospital’s role in providing gender-affirming care for adolescents and pediatrics. Photo courtesy Nile Scott Studios

Moonbox Productions will open the New England premiere of playwright David Valdes’ “Mermaid Hour” April 26 to May 19 at Arrow Street Arts in Cambridge. Director Bridget Kathleen O’Leary makes it clear that this coming-of-age play is not about a transgender girl’s parents grappling with her identity; instead, it is about celebrating that identity while embracing their parenting struggles. 

The plot follows 12-year-old Violet Bardisa-Nickerson (Brenny O’Brien), also known as Vi, and her parents’ decision to allow Vi to start puberty hormone blockers. Vi’s parents want what is best for her medically and socially — because the effects of puberty blockers are irreversible, they worry about the permanence of her decision to take them — but they also do not want to infringe on their daughter’s autonomy. 

 “Mermaid Hour” is set in Boston, where Valdes is from. O’Leary felt the play “had to be done here” because Boston Children’s Hospital was the first hospital in the United States to provide gender-affirming care for adolescents and pediatrics. She was also drawn to the play’s content because she has a stepdaughter who she described as “magic and joy personified.” On a parental level, she said she relates to “Mermaid Hour”. 

When O’Brien found out she was offered the lead role, she said she was excited to portray a character so close to home. 

“I’ve gotten to be a representative of my community because there’s not a lot of trans roles in theatre, especially positive ones,” she said. “Getting to tell [Vi’s] story and be a part of something so beautiful has been so much fun.” 

At 16 years old, O’Brien is the youngest cast member in the play and has felt enormous support from Moonbox community members, who she said have treated her like an adult and did not brush her off as “just being a kid.”

Although she prides herself on the play’s representation of diverse gender identities, O’Leary is aware that comes with a big responsibility. At multiple moments, there are instances of misgendering and deadnaming Vi, a choice Valdes intentionally made. O’Leary said that as a team, they have to be thoughtful about how they communicate gender decisions on the show, so no harm is done to the actors.

“We are honoring the fact that there is separation between character and actor. We are making sure, as we’re approaching all this material, that everyone is feeling cared for,” she said. 

For some, LGBTQ+ topics and discussions are still relatively new. Monica Risi, who plays Vi’s mother Pilar and is originally from Peru, knows that her experiences growing up have drastically shaped who she is as a person and an actor. 

Risi said that in her home country, society’s view of the LGBTQ+ community is not as accepting as it is in the United States. It wasn’t until 2017, when she co-produced Daniel Fernandez Vargas’ “El Arcoiris en las Manos” [The Rainbow in Our Grasp], that she learned more about gender.

“They broadened my perspective,” she said. “Of course, nothing is binary in the world, [so] why the hell would gender be binary?”

Monica Risi, Brenny O’ Brien and Phil Tayler (left to right) sit on a couch while sharing a meal. Risi said that Vi’s accepting social circle in “Mermaid Hour” is a privilege that many others may not have.

Risi said she loves how nothing about the Bardisa-Nickerson family is stereotypical, yet viewers will see the love expected of every relationship. Pilar’s character contradicts stereotypical gender roles and is a role that is not usually offered to women in theatre. 

“Theatre usually gives women the possibility of limited roles – mothers, daughters, prostitutes, nuns,” she said. “Pilar is more of an intellectual, whereas [her husband] Bird is the emotional support for Vi.”

The support Vi’s character receives from her family in the play is admirable and heart-warming, but Risi noted that her accepting social circle isa privilege many others may not have. Without the support of her parents, Vi’s situation could have been drastically different.

For every show, Moonbox Productions partners with a local nonprofit to raise awareness for a cause and mobilize community members. For “Mermaid Hour,” Moonbox Productions has partnered with the Transgender Emergency Fund of Massachusetts. Since 2008, the organization has provided low-income transgender individuals with housing, transportation to medical appointments, financial literacy and other services. 

“I hope audiences see how much joy life [has to offer]. Especially being a trans person, it’s not always negative – there’s so much joy there too,” O’Brien said. “I also hope that audiences don’t stop the discussion at the theatre. Keep talking about how to support one another, especially the youth.”

Tickets are available with pay-what-you-wish options on Arrow Street Arts’ website.

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