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'Johnny Jane' play highlights the power of inclusion through the lens of a transgender boy

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Finn Benham, playwright for 'Johnny Jane."

PALISADE, Colo. It’s five minutes to showtime and Finn Benham exhales a nervous sigh.

“Just hang on to the rope,” they said.

“That's right,” said Valerie Nuzzo, Benham’s friend and mentor, “We're going to just follow this story all the way through.” Her hands mimed as she spoke, pulling on a rope with one hand over the other. Her husband Kim next to her tugged on the same imaginary cord. Benham’s partner, Joe, nodded his head in agreement.

Benham and the Nuzzos are the principal actors and operators of Zephyr Stage, a theater company based in Fruita. They’ve been working together for more than four years now. Their most recent production is one they wrote together.

Valerie Nuzzo said, “We decided early on that we wanted to write something about ‘othering’ and how that happens and how we can ‘un-other’ people.”

What they came up with is a one-hour play called "Johnny Jane."

“It's about John, or Johnny, who's a trans boy who's struggling with being Johnny Jane, which is an insult and not his name … and also trying to be John,” Benham explains. “And [the] truth is, both things are hard.”

While John is not an exact mirror of Benham’s life, they do share the same fear of losing love and support for living in a way that feels the most truthful.

“All of the characters are kind of pieces of all of us,” said Benham. “John is a piece of me in the sense that we share that feeling of wanting to be accepted for being transmasculine. John is a binary trans boy and I'm a non-binary transmasculine person, so there's a difference there. He has a very violent past and I'm really grateful to have had a very nonviolent coming out ... but there's a lot of people that don't have that.”

Colorado Voices

"Johnny Jane"

A new language

Historically, language and grammar around gender and sexuality had been built by the dominant idea that there is male and female and no spectrum between the two. Now, we know that is not the case.

[Related: A Guide To Gender Identity Terms]

Benham said, “There's definitely a lot of new terminologies that have come around in the last decade or two … a lot of terms were born that feel like buzzwords because they all came up at the same time and they're all like new with the younger generations. But really just what happened was people started putting words to feelings.”

They explain further, “So things like cisgender, just meaning 'not trans.' Transgender, meaning, both transitioning from what you were assigned at birth, the sex that you were born as, to the opposite gender.”

And then there is the space Benham exists in, which is non-binary. Benham explained it as an existence where your mind (how you feel inside) aligns somewhere between masculine and feminine. They said, “That can be anything from how you feel socially with other people, how you feel connected with yourself, how you feel connected with your body, with the clothing that you choose to wear — just like an unexplainable feeling of manhood or girlhood.”

In a small community, presenting yourself as anything different than how people have always known you poses difficulties. Benham grew up in Fruita, which has a population of about 14,000, a defined town center, and up until recently, one corporate grocery store. A few years ago, a small local grocery store opened called Skip’s Farm to Market. That is where Benham works most days. Benham now uses a different first name than the one they grew up with. And "she" and "her" are pronouns that do not reflect what Benham truly feels like.

Benham said, “It's definitely hard to live every day, for the most part, being seen as something that I'm not. I'm always seen as a girl unless I explicitly tell people otherwise, at least in most circles. And I don't totally know how to remedy that situation other than we're all just doing the best we can and listening to each other the best that we can and being courteous to each other as much as possible.”

Love and compromise

A community organization called Sing Up the Sun invited Zephyr Stage to perform in Palisade. People from all over the Grand Valley came on a cold winter night to support the play, and to support Benham. 

Benham is a powerhouse of creativity and talent and these talents are recognized by a community that loves them exactly for who they are at the core — a compassionate, hardworking person who is contributing their kindness and effort to society. The audience was a reflection of this.

Benham’s mom was there to help and greet and introduce the play. Before the play started, she poked her head in the door of the side room as the actors were preparing to tell them they had five more minutes. In the most motherly of tones, Valerie Nuzzo said to her fellow actors, “We’re here to take care of each other. No matter what happens, nothing’s bad because we take care of each other.” 

Kim Nuzzo nods in affirmation and repeats, “We will take care of each other.”

The lights lifted, the performers took their bows and the audience graced them with applause. Benham’s grandpa ran up and gave them a giant bear hug. The people who mattered the most were there to offer their love, support, and belief in Benham.

“Even though there is probably not a full understanding with everybody in my life about what's happening yet, there's been a lot of love and acceptance,” said Benham. “The fact that there doesn't have to be a full understanding in order to be like, ‘You want to use this name? Okay, we're using this name now,’ is such a blessing that I wish everybody could have; that you don't have to be fully understood to still be met with love and compromise.”


Cullen Purser is a multimedia journalist at Rocky Mountain PBS. You can reach him at cullenpurser@rmpbs.org.

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