Trans actors take the stage in “Oklahoma!” national tour

Sis in the national tour of Rodgers & Hammerstein's “OKLAHOMA!” - Photo: Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman.

Few musicals conjure up an image of Americana quite like “Oklahoma!” Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s 1943 adaptation of “Green Grow the Lilacs” is often credited with revitalizing the genre by bringing a sense of sweeping grandeur to the story of ordinary people in the Oklahoma Territory at the turn of the twentieth century.

But just because something is a classic doesn’t mean it can’t stand up to a little reinvention. Director Daniel Fish brought his streamlined production of the classic to Broadway in 2019, which featured gritty storytelling, scaled-back orchestrations that emphasized country and bluegrass music, and organically diverse casting. It won the Tony Award for Best Revival and is currently on a U.S. tour, playing a two-week engagement at the Forrest Theatre beginning March 8.

“A lot of the time, and especially with classic Golden Age musicals, I think it relies mostly on the performance aspect and entertainment aspect of musical theater,” said Sis, who plays Ado Annie in the touring production. “This go-around, there was much more emphasis on skill and thought and mind – what is happening onstage and what is supposed to be happening on stage – in the direction and intention. It touches more on my strengths as an actress than just my strengths as a performer.”

In past productions, the character of Ado Annie has often been relegated to the role of comic relief – a diversion from the main love story between Curly McLain and Laurey Williams. She sings the classic romping song “I Cain’t Say No.” Sis, who has long considered Ado Annie a dream role, appreciated the direction this new production takes the character in, making her more grounded and three-dimensional.

“Ado Annie is growing up – she’s transitioning into adulthood and into figuring out her sexuality,” said Sis. “How she was written in the mid-1900s was to be comedic, but how I play her now is more in tune with herself. A lot of people would refer to her as silly or aloof, but I don’t see her that way at all. I see her as someone who is questioning these people and questioning their ideals, trying to get to the bottom of what they all think is going on. Why is it strange for me to feel what I feel? She really just wants to embrace who she wants to be, rather than allowing other thoughts or ideas to affect her existence as a woman.”

Both Sis and Hennessy Winkler, who plays her love interest, Will Parker, are trans actors. The casting wasn’t initially intentional, but Winkler thinks that it brings a new level to the storytelling that complements the production’s aesthetic.

Hennessy Winkler, Sis, and the company of the national tour of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “OKLAHOMA!” – Photo: Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman.

“I was cast a few months before she was, I believe, and they didn’t know their Will was going to be trans,” Winkler said in a separate interview. “They just saw a guileless guy who fit the bill. They didn’t know Ado was going to be trans after they cast me either, but Sis showed up and killed it, and she got the role. When I found out, I thought it was so cute. Not everyone who sees the show knows that we’re trans, and you wouldn’t necessarily, just seeing the show.”

Although transness isn’t explicitly emphasized in the characterization of Ado Annie and Will’s relationship, the ability to bring representation to areas of the country where it might be lacking has made a difference, according to Winkler.

“Trans male erasure in the entertainment industry is a real thing,” Winkler said. “A lot of people really don’t know that trans men exist yet. I want to be able to represent trans men in the industry and get the word out that we exist, and we know how to tell a good story. One time I went out to the front of the theater – I think we were in Minneapolis – and I was just taking a picture. There was this kid with their parents who got a picture with me. Later, they wrote me and said ‘I’m a trans guy, and seeing you do this show really changed my life. I didn’t think this was an arena that I could be part of.’ That one message that I got from that kid just made the whole tour so much more worth it.”

The casting also underscores the diversity of the trans experience. “Hennessy is a white trans man in his thirties, and I’m a Black trans woman from Houston in my early twenties,” Sis said. “We are just a Black woman and a white man. My transness is so rooted in my Blackness and so specific to my identity.”

Both Sis and Winkler are scheduled to continue with the tour through October of this year, after which the future is as wide open as the Oklahoma plains. Sis hasn’t yet decided what her next chapter will be, but she intends to be intentional in choosing future projects.

“I really want to take some time to focus on the art that I want to make and curate,” Sis said. “I really want to focus on the things I have in my head and building off what inspires me, the things I want to share with the world. I feel like playing Ado Annie is really a dream come true, so I’ve conquered a big dream for myself in musical theater. So next I want to take the time to focus on myself as an artist in the world.”