John Cameron Mitchell's groundbreaking rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch is primarily the story of Hedwig, the East German "internationally ignored song stylist" (and recipient of a botched sex change operation), and her connection to a pop star named Tommy Gnosis. But there is another beautifully told relationship in the show, one whose enactment is all the more impressive for its subtlety: That of Hedwig and her husband, a former drag queen from Croatia named Yitzhak.
The current revival on Broadway has had a string of big names playing Hedwig. Aside from Mitchell, who came back into the role for a brief period earlier this year, she has been played by such actors as Darren Criss ( Glee), Michael C. Hall (Dexter), and Andrew Rannells (Girls). Taye Diggs is up next. Yitzhak was initiated in this run by Lena Hall, but is currently played by Rebecca Naomi Jones, who has been on Broadway before in American Idiot and Passing Strange. The young star has made a name for herself by taking on interesting roles in genre-busting productions. Paper magazine said that Jones was "the girl to call when there's a cooler-than-thou musical in town." She's also the first black woman to play Yitzhak in a major production, a smart choice for a show that plays heavily with fluid identities and cross-casting.
VICE spoke with Jones to hear more of Yitzhak's story and find out what it's like to be the first black woman in this role.
"As a brown person in America—well, and everywhere—you feel your brownness and your blackness even when other people don't realize they're being offensive or hurtful." —Rebecca Namoi Jones
VICE: So tell us about Yitzhak, and why does he stay with Hedwig?
Jones: Yitzhak is a guy who has big dreams, and loves beautiful things. He wants to love and be loved, to be cared for. Unfortunately, he's been through a lot in life, in his own country and in order to flee that country. He has made really difficult choices in order to survive, and those choices involve him suppressing his own desires, his own beauty, and those finer things that he has inside him.
Hedwig is the reason Yitzhak was able to escape Croatia. Hedwig made a deal with Yitzhak that he would suppress those things so that Hedwig could be the only beautiful one in the relationship. So Yitzhak has this musical-theater-beauty-glitter-glam loving drag queen inside of him. He stays with Hedwig because it's the deal he made with the devil. It's his only way of surviving. And Hedwig has his passport, so he's really stuck in this abusive marriage.
But he's also found a way to love Hedwig, because it's how he learned to survive. So it's a really complicated relationship, but there is love and an intense sexuality there. It's very complicated, but he's making it work.
What do you think happens at the end of the show?
Hedwig has had this major moment of self-reconciliation. He's shed his many layers of skin, and is allowing herself to free herself. In that, she realizes that she needs to free Yitzhak as well. She gives Yitzhak the right to wear wigs again, and to be his true self, the way that she is allowing herself to be his/her truest self.
Do you think they stay together?
No. I don't think so. I think that they part, but they part in a way that is full of love.
How do you get into character?
I apply a healthy dose of make-up to create humungous eyebrows, a mustache, and a beard. The make-up helps quite a bit. Once I see myself in the mirror, my face immediately goes into a different form.
The costume is really amazing. It's this extra element to the character that helps so much. I have a chest compression top, and an actual gray fake penis that I wear just because it helps me. I'm aware of it between my legs, and it makes me have a wider stance. And it's something for Hedwig to grab onto in the show. I wear it with a harness belt that the wardrobe people got from a transgender website. And I have big old heavy jeans and a wallet chain and a big old heavy leather jacket and a big tie with studs on it. All these layers help conceal my body and make it feel like it has a much weightier stature.
Once I put the whole many-layered costume on, my body falls into place. My shoulders hunch forward, my chin juts forward, my pelvic area goes forward. So instead of my normal Rebecca lady-stance and lady-walk, I have this angst-y, sullen, broody dude inside of me that just comes out.
You're the first black woman to play Yitzhak in a major production. Does your identity change the character, and if so, how?
Absolutely. A lot of the verbally abusive stuff that Hedwig slings at Yitzhak has become, for lack of a better word—or perhaps it's the best word to use—darker. It feels close to home in this sad but appropriate way.
Especially the version of the show John Cameron Mitchell was doing. Already, when Lena Hall was doing the role, there was a whole section where he would say "you're like a self-hating helper monkey." And, you know, the word monkey has been used toward black people in racially-charged, abusive ways for years. There was also one point I was chewing some gum and John's Hedwig would take the gum out of my mouth and chew it himself, and say "Mmm, watermelon." It's stuff that wasn't even on purpose, but when it came out, because I'm black, it had this extra dark layer to it.
With Darren [Criss, who is currently playing Hedwig], it's less dark but it's still there. As a brown person in America—well, and everywhere—you feel your brownness and your blackness even when other people don't realize they're being offensive or hurtful. It's something you feel all the time. It's lending itself to this role.
Were you familiar with the show before? How do you think its reception is different this time around?
I never got to see the show at Jane Street, but I was in love with the movie and I watched it many, many times. So doing this has been pretty exciting. It's interesting now to have Darren Criss be a part of the show, because he brings this audience who loved him on Glee. So I'm seeing all these eyes-wide-open people at the stage door, which is great.
But it's just really cool that they found a way to make this dark, witty, biting piece of theater about a transgender person with a botched sex change a big hit on Broadway. It's making an impact on young people and people in general who have never seen it before, which says a lot about the show as a piece about self-acceptance, redemption, addiction, abuse, and how we can come to terms with our complicated identities and embrace the freak within us!
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