Gender is becoming an increasingly slippery thing. Thanks to the activism of public figures like Laverne Cox, mainstream society is starting to ask questions about the grey areas between men and women. Conversations about sexuality and gender are becoming more entangled, with celebrities like Chimamande Ngozi Adichie voicing their (arguably unqualified) opinions on the validity of genderqueer and trans identities. Stacey Gregg’s Scorch responds to these debates by posing society’s questions through a teenager named Kes. Based on the controversial true story of Justine McNally, Scorch portrays Kes confronting their alternative gender identity after falling in love for the first time.
Kes is born biologically a girl, but insists from a young age that they are a boy. Through Amy McAllister’s warm and candid monologue, we gain a small insight into the life of a transgender individual – we learn about “packing”, trying to pee standing up, learning to speak in a convincingly masculine voice. McAllister is compelling as Kes, showing how joyful her character can be even while managing so much private confusion about their body. Performing in the round, McAllister wanders amongst the audience and looks us in the eye as she tells the story, endearing herself to us by being so arrestingly direct. It is easy to root for Kes, who shows so much pleasure in exploring their masculine side.
Gregg’s script is remarkably sensitive to the complexities of gender identity. In response to the word “trans”, Kes ponders the label before telling us that they “haven’t decided yet”. The media calls Kes a lesbian, and they reply “maybe I am”. Kes does not choose a fixed identity until they have their heart broken, at which point they think about definitively transitioning to a man in order to win their ex-girlfriend back. The implication here is that transgender individuals are only swayed to identify as a particular gender because society compels them to, but Gregg does not force the issue one way or the other. Her main point is that these questions are thorny. In the climax to Kes’s coming-of-age story, we learn that they will be sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison for gender fraud and non-consensual sex. The audience is put in an impossible situation. If we defend Kes, who really believes that they are a boyfriend, then we risk disregarding the issue of consent. If we side with Jules, the girlfriend, then we dismiss Kes’s trans identity and end up defining them as a girl masquerading as a man.
Through clever writing and McAllister’s endearing delivery, the audience stays sympathetic to Kes even to the end. By witnessing their relationship, we have in a way been complicit in their crime, and that makes us re-evaluate society’s role in creating such impossible situations. Gregg avoids giving a complete answer to this moral quandary, but leaves us with an optimistic picture of Kes finding peace with themself. The piece is both uplifting and complicated, and fully deserving of the standing ovation that it receives at the end.