In 2015, Shade Schuler, a twenty-two year old black transgender woman, was found dead in Dallas’ Medical District. Around the same time, British playwright Paul Kalburgi moved to Dallas with his husband and two kids. He soon began conducting hundreds of hours of interviews with those impacted most by Shade’s death, a murder still unsolved.
“I immersed myself in the story while it was still happening,” he says.
The new play about the aftermath of loss in Shade’s community is called In The Tall Grass. Kalburgi uses a method known as verbatim playwriting. Every word said onstage is from one of the interviews he collected in researching the Dallas LGBTQ+ community’s reaction to Shade’s murder. He is not actually creating the story so much as editing it together, describing himself as a “custodian of the words” that he has recorded.
Disjointed interviews with dozens of people had to be arranged into a linear story an audience could follow and a cast could perform.
“I’ve got seven actors playing something like seventy characters,” Kalburgi says.
Many, including me, have asked Paul what right he, a middle class white man, has to be the one telling this story, even if only as a custodian of the words of others. His response was unwavering.
“As a gay man enjoying certain privileges, I don’t feel I had the right not to. Trans people are often forgotten or swept under the rug. We have to hold the door open and make sure everyone gets through.”
The Human Rights Campaign reported 22 deaths of transgender people due to fatal violence last year, and 19 already this year. That’s an increase since 2015, when Shade was the fourth U.S. trans woman to be killed in three weeks. These rates still reflect that trans women of color are disproportionally targeted. Shade’s murder is one tragic piece of a much larger tragic picture. Many of the injustices and horrors trans people experience are shocking for an outsider to hear.
Paul tells me accounts he heard of being held hostage, abuse and threats from insecure partners, boyfriends, and johns insecure in their masculinity after sleeping with trans women, and trans people being barred from employment and forced into sex work in order to survive. He’s hoping those stories can help communicate the range of discrimination trans and gender non-conforming Americans face every day.
“I want you to take on my role,” he says. “Relive my two-year journey.”
For that to happen though, he needs to reach as wide an audience as possible.
“If this play is only seen by trans people of color then I didn’t do my job. We can only hope for real change if new people hear these stories.”
In The Tall Grass opens Thursday and runs until Sept. 24th at Bishop Arts Theatre Center.