Yitzhak: Teaching the Human Heart by Redefining Gender Identity

Adriana Nocco

Memory. A person that has struggled to conform to a forced gender identity for many years, dealing with loss and betrayal of all kinds along the way, has finally been liberated. They stand on a stage, bare and barely clothed, in a solitary pool of light, makeup that is no longer relevant smearing their face, for they are neither man nor woman, neither here nor there. They sing a song of rawness and freedom as their band’s rock music complements their newly discovered, true voice. However, all of a sudden, this person gestures to something out in the distance behind us, and as my fellow audience members and I quickly turn to find out what that something is, we realize that that “something” is actually a “someone.” That someone is a beautiful, radiant woman in a tremendous blonde wig and glamorous black and purple slit gown, gliding down the aisle, the gown’s train gracefully following suit. Her beauty is transcendent, for she has never before felt that she could embrace her true, womanly self, and the pure elation that she feels is apparent as she abandons her biological gender and reclaims her long lost femininity. She steps up onto the stage to bask in the light, and twirls giddily as flower petals fall upon her, signifying that she her true self has finally been allowed to bloom and will refuse to be suppressed from now on. This gender identity does not trap her; she belongs within it. She has chosen it for herself.

At 7:58 pm on a cold evening this past January, my boyfriend and I found ourselves jumping off the A-train at 42nd Street and sprinting towards Tkts (at 47th and 7th Ave) in order to claim two tickets to see John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch at 10 pm later that night. We’d been told to claim the tickets by 8 pm at the very latest, and fortunately were able to make it just in time to do so. I have been lucky enough to have attended upwards of sixty Broadway productions thus far in my lifetime, and I can say with absolute certainty that I have never seen ANYTHING quite like Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Its electrifying, raw rock score and unique storyline, that of Hedwig, a (previously male) genderqueer rock singer who had taken on a female gender identity after having undergone a botched sex change operation in order to marry an American man and escape from East Germany while the Berlin Wall was still up (after World War II had ended), separate it from everything I’ve ever seen onstage on their own. However, we had the honor and privilege of witnessing the unparalleled John Cameron Mitchell perform the role of Hedwig and the endlessly incredible Lena Hall perform the role of Yitzhak, Hedwig’s husband, roadie, and human punching bag. These two incomparable performers delivered two of the most truthful and absolute best performances I have ever seen in my life; for the duration of the show, I legitimately forgot that Hedwig and Yitzhak do not actually exist. Five minutes after the show had begun, I turned to my boyfriend and whispered, “I already know that this is one of the best things I’ve ever seen on Broadway.”

Of course, Mitchell’s iconic portrayal of the cynical, jaded Hedwig was the focal point of the show, and it was apparently clear that no one knows Hedwig in the intimate fashion that he does or is capable of strapping on a pair of heels and taking ownership over the role in the way that he can (with all due respect to all the other Broadway Hedwigs). He was hilarious, hardened, and heart-wrenching, and I was putty in his immensely talented fingertips. However, Lena Hall (whom I haven’t been able to stop gushing about ever since), had never played Yitzhak before stepping into the role on Broadway, and she was nothing short of a revelation. Throughout Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Hedwig does most of the talking and dishes out wisecracks and insults left and right, but Yitzhak’s language is an unspoken one. While John Cameron Mitchell as Hedwig occupied center stage for most of the show, Lena Hall as Yitzhak stayed out of the spotlight, listening to Hedwig speak and adjusting Hedwig’s band’s equipment. Yitzhak would longingly stare at Hedwig as Hedwig basked in the spotlight, and then would turn his attention to one of Hedwig’s spare wigs, gently reaching out to stroke and caress it with his fingertips or bury his face within it. Yitzhak yearns to dress and perform in drag, and feels confined by his biologically male identity. I believe it takes a truly phenomenal actor to tell a story for the duration of a show almost solely using a subtle, nuanced, nearly wordless performance, and as a result, I gained an incredible adoration and respect for Lena Hall when I saw her in Hedwig for the first time (I loved it so much that I returned to see it a second time, which is something I very rarely do).

The female characters of Broadway musicals are often confined to gender binary, heteronormative boxes; in other words, they identify as female, biologically and otherwise, conform to the standards that society traditionally expects for women to meet, and are also straight. Leading ladies on Broadway also, more often than not, do not possess rock voices that break the classical soprano mold. However, the role of Yitzhak (although not a biologically “female” character) redefines what it means to be “female” on Broadway and otherwise, undoubtedly breaking those boxes and scattering the pieces, and (as Lena Hall showed me with her impeccable, astonishing vocal capabilities) forces Broadway to make room for a different type of leading voice, one that I absolutely love. I also believe that Yitzhak has the potential to help change both the mentality that is often used to think about casting roles in the theatrical world. Although Yitzhak is a character that is born biologically male, the role is always played by a woman, with each woman playing the character putting their own individual spin on what discovering true gender identity means to them. This shows that casting does not (and should not) need to be “biologically accurate” in terms of gender, and ironically and significantly enhances the message of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Yitzhak proves that one’s true gender identity should not continue to be defined by the biological parts that one is assigned at birth, but rather should be chosen for oneself. The role’s impact upon the theatrical community is very clear, especially since Fun Home, the first ever Broadway musical with a “masculinely” dressed-and-identifying, lesbian protagonist, is now the Tony-Award winner for Best Musical, and its modern-day relevance is also very clear (ex: Caitlyn Jenner’s courageous decision to transition).

The great Laurence Olivier once said, “I don’t know what is better than the work of an actor—to teach the human heart the knowledge of itself.” If this is true, then Yitzhak and the actresses who play this groundbreaking role are some of the best teachers ever to grace the stage, for they teach us all that what the human heart wants is the ability to pursue, well, what it wants, regardless of society’s expectations.