Hennessy Winkler, Sis, and the company of the national tour of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!
(Photo by Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)
Trans actors add to the tapestry of a revived ‘Oklahoma!’
RICH LOPEZ | Staff writer
Of all the Broadway musicals that could be reworked to dive deep into a world of modern inclusion and diversity, Oklahoma! probably isn’t the first to come to mind. Perceived as a wholesome, family-friendly musical, Oklahoma! would seem forever steeped in a different time.
And yet, its 2019 revival by director Daniel Fish changed the way we often see the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic.
The cast is a minimal dozen playing across one set to the familiar songs and story of Oklahoma! But the cast is a diverse mix of actors, including two trans actors, bringing a distinctive amount of representation to the stage.
Hennessy Winkler plays Will Parker and Sis plays Ado Annie Carnes in Oklahoma! which opened Tuesday, May 31, as part of the Broadway Dallas season at the Music Hall at Fair Park and runs through June 12. The two actors recently discussed their parts in Oklahoma! and what that means to today’s theater scene.
Oklahoma! marks Winkler’s first national tour. He has a longtime love affair with these classic musicals, but he loves them in a more examined way.
“Some of them are so super corny, and I’d be very judgmental. But there were ones that had these darker undertones, like Oklahoma!, and those always held my attention more,” Winkler said.
He laughs about how many musicals have these tragic or sinister elements that are just glossed over through song. But Winkler thinks that Fish’s version of Oklahoma! almost gives light to such elements.
“In our musical, Curly wants Judd to commit suicide. And then there’s this whole song about the over-sexed woman of the town.
There’s this weird race shit and colonialism that was danced around before and [left you] with this good feeling, but it’s really kind of dark,” he said.
In some ways, Winkler said, it was those undertones that led him to musical theater.
“You have these grownups dressed in silly costumes singing these provocative, sexy songs. There’s a rawness I love about all that,” he said.
But for this particular experience — albeit an ensemble one — Winkler is front and center as a trans actor on a big stage. Not only is it a big experience for him as an actor, it’s also an important one.
“I feel so grateful to be one of the first trans actors in a national tour like this. It’s really humbling and exciting. But also, I was awkward for a long time socially and physically while transitioning. I’m so grateful to look at myself now, and it feels very affirming to be in this show,” he said. “Plus, it feels like the industry is on the right track.”
After Winkler came out, he didn’t transition for more than a decade, so he was at a crossroads. His acting resumé at that time identified him as female, and, he admits, he was good at that and had a voice he didn’t want to give up just yet.
In short, there was this wall he had hit as an actor.
“People didn’t know other than there was something going on with me. I think they picked up on this in my auditions,” he said.
Today, Winkler brings his authentic self to the stage — especially when the director wanted everyone to do so. In this environment Winkler feels empowered to not only take on his character Will but to be that representation onstage.
“I’m just performing as myself up there. Daniel wanted all of us to bring ourselves to the role rather than diving into the character, and so while Will isn’t necessarily a trans man, I play him as one.”
For his first role in a national tour with a deep authenticity to his role, Winkler has the best of all worlds during his Oklahoma! experience. “Everything about this has been a learning experience and a gift,” he said.
With the role of Ado Annie, Sis has found her dream come true. She was familiar with the show already after doing it in college, but this time is a far different experience.
“I think being a part of the show authentically is kind of what everyone is going for — allowing the show to tell the story and just lean into the text a bit more.” she said. “When you take out the fluff you see these people and the words truly.”
When she was cast, Sis said she was excited about taking on such a role and continuing to redefine it. In the 2019 revival, Ali Stroker won a Tony award for the role as the first wheelchair-using actor. For the tour, Ado Annie is now played by a Black trans woman.
“It was exciting to be cast in this big of a role,” she said. “I can redefine and change the character’s narrative while also showcasing myself.”
She also appreciates how this new Oklahoma delivers something different to audiences. Theater used to be more straightforward entertainment. Sis sees this and other shows as giving people something deeper and serving a bigger purpose.
“You would go to the theater for fun. It was a distraction. Now we’re turning the tables,” she said. “We should take life and art and look at everything in much more honest ways.”
Although there is much to celebrate about Sis bringing representation to the stage, she talks about how labels can distract from who she essentially is.
“I don’t have this trans flag on my chest. In a way I try not to give it too much credit. I want my existence as a woman and taking up space in this world to be known above all else,” she said. “No one may have expected a plus-size Black trans woman in this role before, but the representation here is that anyone can tell this story and that I’m in the mix of it all. I want to just be me.”
For Sis, while she understands the representation she brings, normalizing that is the ultimate goal.
Originally from Houston, Sis said she is happy to be back in her home state. Currently based in Los Angeles, she said she is ready to serve it onstage to her fellow Texans and family coming up to see the show.
“I miss the people and the comfort here. There really is no place like it,” she said.
Oklahoma! runs through June 12 at Music Hall at Fair Park. For tickets, visit BroadwayDallas.org. The tour will play at Bass Hall June 21-26. For tickets, visit BassHall.com.