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Transgender representation is central for Ellie Desautels, star of "Orange Julius," opening at CSPS

University of Iowa graduate Basil Kreimendahl wrote play's script

Ellie Desautels, plays Nut in “Orange Julius,” being staged by Mirrorbox Theatre Nov. 14 to 16 at CSPS. (Pasha Kalachev)
Ellie Desautels, plays Nut in “Orange Julius,” being staged by Mirrorbox Theatre Nov. 14 to 16 at CSPS. (Pasha Kalachev)
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Ellie Desautels remembers the first time they saw a transgender person on television. It was a moment of awakening of sorts, they said, as they suddenly had a definition for things they were feeling but didn’t know how to express.

“It was wild to have that epiphany,” they said. “Trans representation on TV is so important to me.”

Desautels is bringing that representation to the stage in Mirrorbox Theatre’s production of “Orange Julius,” which is running Nov. 14 to 16 at CSPS.

Desautels, 25, who uses the pronouns they and them, identifies as nonbinary. Their character in the play, Nut, is nonbinary and transmasculine, also using the pronouns they/them as well as he/him.

The story, written by University of Iowa MFA Playwrights’ Workshop graduate Basil Kreimendahl, centers around Nut as they care for their dying father, Julius, who was exposed to Agent Orange in the Vietnam War.

Nut is a challenging role, Desautels said, because the character is onstage the entire show, with lots of monologues and heavy, emotional scenes.

“I feel like the whole play is a grieving process,” Desautels said. “The whole play takes place in Nut’s mind, in Nut’s memories and in Nut’s fantasies.”

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One such fantasy is serving alongside their father in Vietnam, which Nut imagines would allow their father to see them as “just one of the guys,” an experience denied them in real life.

“The whole play is Nut’s desire to be understood, especially by their father,” Desautels said.

Desautels, who lives in New York, became involved in the production through their fiance, whose brother is Mirrorbox director Cavan Hallman. Originally from Connecticut, Desautels studied theater at Manhattanville College in New York before landing a role in the 2018 NBC TV drama “Rise.” Desautels played Michael, a transgender high school student who joins the theater group at the show’s center.

Desautels said being one of a handful of transgender and nonbinary actors on prime time television never felt like a burden, but a privilege. The “Rise” team gave them a chance to shape the direction of Michael’s character, Desautels said, such as in a scene Michael stands up to a bully.

“I knew it wouldn’t be helpful for trans youth to see Michael beat down by people,” Desautels said. “I feel very lucky I have the chance to make change.” Representation of trans characters must be handled well, or it can end up being harmful, they said. The TV show they saw as a high school student, which they declined to name, had a cisgender woman playing the transgender character.

“They portrayed the experience as so terrifying. They didn’t really explain what it meant,” Desautels said. “I had no vocabulary, and I hadn’t seen anything like this until I saw it on TV, and it wasn’t sufficient. I wish representation had been more positive and had been more informative.

“People need to see us, and see we have happy lives as well. It is true some people experience a lot of traumaand a lot of pain around their identities, but that’s not all of it. We need to show stories that aren’t all about being trans — it’s just a person who happens to be trans.”

What’s next for the actor? Continuing to audition and, honestly, paying the bills with a job at Starbucks, Desautels said with a laugh. They are also featured in a documentary about trans representation, “Disclosure” set for release in January 2020.

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Representation needs to continue to grow to include more kinds of transgender and nonbinary people, especially trans women of color, Desautels said.

“My trans experience and Michael’s trans experience is not everyone’s trans experience,” they said. “We need every story out there, every kind of person out there ... I can’t stress enough, I can’t be it. A white trans person can’t be it. We are so diverse.”

If You Go

• What: Mirrorbox Theatre: “Orange Julius”

• Where: C-Space, first floor, CSPS Hall, 1103 Third St. SE, Cedar Rapids

• When: 7:30 p.m. today (11/14) to Saturday (11/16)

• Tickets: $15; CSPS Box Office, (319) 364-1580 or Legionarts.org/events/upcoming/orange-julius/

• Details: Mirrorboxtheatre.com/

Comments: (319) 398-8339; alison.gowans@thegazette.com

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