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What playing a judge in a musical

taught me about self-respect

a controversial review by Neve Mazique-Bianco

In general, I like people to like me. And I like to like people.

It's uncomfortable for me to know that there's a reason a person and I don't care for each other, especially when I thought that there was a good chance we could get on well. So this feeling I'm feeling, is new. As I told my therapist on the phone this morning, "I no longer care about what people I don't share values with think about me." The deeper implication to this statement being: I have confidence in my (evolving) values. And I just might be recovering from childhood trauma created codependency! Woah! Oh!

I've always loved courtroom dramas, despite being staunchly ACAB since my teen years. (I've been out of adolescence for what feels like a century. That's right, I am a 118 years old!) I peruse my catalog-like memory of screenshots from shows and films for the faces I remember. Those of District Attorneys, Defense Attorneys, Public Defenders, defendants, plaintiffs, friends and family, and the jury. The only person who has never really stood out to me has been the judge. The only judges who have made impressions on me, were the monstrous racist who was overheard saying that he was going to make sure our Brother Mumia Abu Jamal "fried", and the judge in My Cousin Vinny, who insists on the pronunciation of the h in "youths".

This was, until I played a Judge in a recent production of Legally Blonde the Musical. I like to get into all my roles, no matter how small, and after weeks I found myself really considering the immense role of a judge in a trial. Not that I favor punitive justice, or authoritarianism, but when a judge enters a courtroom, all are supposed to rise, indicating honor. Something I found interesting in both the script and the staging of Legally Blonde, is that the judge, Your Honor, as I am called, receives the least amount of respect from anyone.

One time I was taking a staging workshop, and challenged the facilitator to define theatrically conveyed power beyond physical mechanisms such as sitting or standing, "good" or "bad" posture, etc, and it was hard for this particular person to get away from ableism in their answer. When we are indoctrinated with oppression, especially in the theatre world, sometimes the only remedy seems to be fighting fire with fire, like with like, the master's tools for dismantling the master's house. Hence, diversely or color blindly casting shows which do not honor its characters of color or queer or disabled characters.

In both scenes that the judge in Legally Blonde the Musical appears, she is upstage from most of the action. And in both real and fabricated worlds, the judge is elevated above the rest of the people in the room, making her taller than both seated and standing people. Therefore, it is said that she "presides over" the court. In the production I played the judge in however, the intricacies of the courtroom scene were not really focused on or considered. This affected the audience's ability to focus on anything at all. My judge's seat podium was not elevated- there had been talk about there being some kind of ramped platform made for me to rise up onto. Ramps! Bah! The lift to the stage barely worked during rehearsal and there was no access for me to the dressing rooms whatsoever so I don't know why I thought that the set design was going to incorporate ramps or consider my journey as a person onstage at all.

Given that I was under elevated as a judge, and could not preside, I did my best to keep my eye on everyone in the scene, and to adlib large responses when possible. The judge has a number of sung solos in both courtroom scenes, but a limited number of speaking lines, even when she is being spoken to, spoken about, spoken in front of. I found myself feeling indignant for this judge, as if I was a bird trapped in a room of her life. How dare she be disrespected this way!

When I experience ableism, I often volley between deep grief and dry humor. What I rarely allow myself to feel for very long, is anger. Righteous anger. There is the despair that ableism is something I have experienced since babyhood, since I was literally innocent, and there is the humor that I use to build my resiliency to survive it. The anger is what? Fire. Beautiful. The purpose in a way of both the tears and the laughs, is that I might illicit empathy in those around me, those who would harm me, ignore me, misjudge me. The anger seems alienating. I'm afraid it makes me less innocent. But that's not true. Children feel anger. As a child I certainly did. I felt it before I knew how to placate those who would do me harm.

No matter how many times my scene partners were told not to stand in front me when delivering lines due to the fact that I was not elevated and would not be seen by the audience, they did it anyway. Despite the fact that my friend and I who shared the corner of the stage as our makeshift accessible and non-binary gender friendly dressing room did not have access to the downstairs dressing room, and everyone else in the cast knew this, they had a circle up with hands held on opening night, without us.

The judge in both the film version of Legally Blonde and the original Broadway cast, is a Black woman. Part of the comedy of the courtroom is how unrealistic the proceedings are, including the blatant disrespect and dishonoring of the judge. But is the disrespect of a Black woman, in my case a Black, disabled, queer, non-binary woman, so unrealistic, no matter the setting? Don't we have to project, sit up straight, stand up or raise ourselves up on ramped platforms in order to be seen or heard and even then it might not work?

Legally Blonde is a fun, cute, occasionally empowering to women, silly musical full of unchecked racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia, even in its most contemporary form. We tried a little, to update it, and we were denied this chance by the negligence of certain individuals. But it doesn't really matter what surface tricks you use to try to make something stick, something land, if its foundation is faulty. Despite "diverse" casting, there was no true elevation of marginalized bodies, voices, or characters in this show or production. I briefly considered going into law during this show, but as Viola Davis says, "I'm proud to be an actor because it is the only profession which celebrates what it is to lead a life."

Sharing and defending my liberation and equity seeking, social justice based values consistently throughout the rehearsal process of Legally Blonde did not make me many friends or fans. There were a few people who I think liked me. You know who you are. It's my instinct to feel baffled by this lack of reception, and care very much, and to try to do something to change myself so that people will be less put off by my me-ness. But I don't want to. I care. About my experience and the experience of others. I care about equity. I care about solidarity. I care about justice. Even, and especially in the space in which we create frivolity and joy. If people judge me for that, I will judge them back, for as long as I care to put my energy towards that.

Theatre has failed me many times. Its writers, directors, actors, and crew have sometimes harmed me on micro and macro levels. But what keeps me coming back to it is that I never fail to learn about myself during a production. And I never fail to learn about humanity, and to become a stronger, deeper human being.

For a brief time, I was a judge, a nerdy sorority girl, and a popular Harvard Law student from a rich family. I gained sympathy for all of these lives. I might feel discouraged that many of my colleagues failed to show evidence of newfound sympathy or consideration for my lived experience, or the lived experience of other colleagues of theirs with marginalized identities different from their own, but the truth is, I am not going to believe myself only if someone else validates me. I am not going to indulge anger only if I know someone will come along and quell it. I am not going to cry just to be hugged. I am not going to act just to be understood by everyone. I now know my values are alienating to some people. And I am even more proud of them.

The Judge doesn't care about being liked by everyone. And neither does Elle Woods. But she will be respected. And she respects herself. I respect myself.

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