Thursday, May 19 was a historic day in North Carolina’s General Assembly building.
Not only was it the first time I stepped into a government building for a reason other than going to traffic court, it was the first time an opera had ever been performed inside Raleigh's assembly floor.
“The Body Politic” was written by UNCSA graduates Charles Osborne and Leo Hurley, and follows the journey of Iphis, a transgender Afghan immigrant. It debuted in Boston a few weeks ago after Hurley, Osborne and the Juventas New Music Ensemble spent several years putting the production together.
The show wasn’t written with the intention of being performed on the third floor of the legislative floor — but the passing of House Bill 2 brought them back to the Tar Heel state.
“Y’all have had a very busy spring,” Osborne joked before opening the show.
“The Body Politic” opens in 1996 Afghanistan, with Iphis’ mother dressing his then-female body to mirror that of a young boy’s — an Afghan practice known as the bacha posh — much to the delight of young Iphis . When Iphis’ mother reminds him that his new identity is not “forever,” he becomes disappointed, and his internal conflict is clear.
“The Body Politic” goes back and forth between his journey in 1996 to how he got to be who he is in the “present.” The present in this piece is 2006 Chapel Hill, where Iphis faces being accepted not only as a transgender man, but also an Afghan immigrant in post-911 America.
Photo by: Lydia Shiel
Having the opera set in Chapel Hill goes beyond the composers’ affinity for Carolina basketball.
Chapel Hill in 2006 is the setting of a real-life tragedy, when UNC graduate Mohammed Taheri-azar drove into the Pit with the intention of killing UNC students.
Not only is the attack addressed in “The Body Politic,” it occurs on the same day as the show’s climactic dinner scene. In this scene, Iphis announces he has officially become an American citizen. In doing so, the opera contrasts how the actions of few don't characterize those who may share the same religious beliefs.
The opera was performed by an incredibly talented ensemble. Laura Intravia impressed me the most, especially considering she had the task of playing two very different characters. Intrivia shined portraying both young Iphis as he struggled with mother’s reluctance to accept his true identity as well as Michael, a young, naive American boy older Iphis lives with.
Another standout was James Wesley Hunter, who played Euguene, Iphis’ roommate and a nighttime drag queen. Hunter excelled at adding humor to the piece, something that is difficult with any opera, let alone an opera that addresses the heavy topics “The Body Politic” does.
Despite the undeniable vocal skills all cast members possessed, the music of "The Body Politic" wasn’t what stuck with me the most. It was the politics — or perhaps the lack thereof.
Oftentimes “political” pieces can be heavy-handed as they try to force the audience to agree with the viewpoints held by the piece's creators, something that usually ends up alienating audiences. This was not the case with "The Body Politic."
There was no overlying narrative trying to tell the audience to take a side, or think a certain way. There was no villain.
Nobody’s issues or beliefs were trivialized. The characters came from different upbringings and had varied belief systems. They all had flaws, as well as backstories that didn’t excuse their behaviors, but made it clear to the audience how the characters' experiences shaped who they are.
At one point, a character asks if Iphis would identify the same way if he'd been brought up with different life experiences. It’s a question he can’t answer.
This moment in the show was a pivotal moment that, to me, shed light on how we treat others. People often scrutinize why others act, look or just are a certain way without realizing we’re the products of our unique life experiences, and honestly, we're all just trying to get by.
On March 23, North Carolina passed House Bill 2. Since then, the five-paged piece of legislation has spurred boycotts, travel bans and a lawsuit involving the federal government.
“The Body Politic” came to the North Carolina General Assembly in an attempt to humanize the issues House Bill 2 discusses. If just one N.C. representative in the audience was affected in the way I was, Hurley and Osborne definitely succeeded.