At a recent audition for a Chicago play, Delia Kropp was asked to read both male and female parts. She didn’t get the gig and later found out why. “I wasn’t convincing enough in the male roles,” she says. Ironic, considering that Kropp lived as a man for much of her life.
Kropp began transitioning to a woman 12 years ago and in the process stepped away from theater. In March, she returned to play a transgender poet in Raggedy And, put on by Pride Films and Plays, where she is a company member. Now the 59-year-old actress takes on a much bigger role—perhaps the biggest of her career—as Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, a transgender woman hiding from the Nazis, in the Pulitzer-winning drama I Am My Own Wife. The play traditionally features one man performing all the female and male roles—35 characters total. In this adaptation, Kropp will play only Charlotte, and three men will play the additional parts.
Both of your roles since returning to the stage have been transgender. Do you hope to play traditional female parts as well?
Yes, absolutely, partly because there just aren’t that many transgender roles, but more importantly because I acknowledge that I’m trans but I identify as female. Getting those female roles is still an obstacle. I’m older and I’m trans female. So I need to make my own opportunities whenever I can. Transgender people need to start telling the stories that are about our humanity. Nobody is going to tell them for us.
How did you land the role of Charlotte?
Sheer bald-faced moxie. As a transgender actor, I’d had my eyes on that part. But I am not comfortable going back and forth over the gender lines for roles. So in September 2015, I shot an email over to the About Face artistic director, Andrew Volkoff, and I said I’d like to play Charlotte and only Charlotte.
Why did you, as a transgender woman, want to see the casting adjusted?
I feel the public already has skepticism about the authenticity of our identity. I don’t want them to think, Oh, she can just put it on and off, like trousers.
Doug Wright, the playwright, has noted that having one actor perform all the roles speaks to the way Charlotte adopted various guises to survive during World War II.
Our version does not negate that theme. But it becomes a story about the characters and a lot less about the virtuosity of the actor. The focus becomes one transgender person’s efforts to survive and live her truth under very difficult circumstances.
Why did you decide to take a hiatus from theater?
It’s hard to get roles when you’re transitioning. I started transitioning when I was 47, and I wasn’t 100 percent female in my presentation during much of that time. I went through my gender-neutral phase as Dee, and some people still called me David, my dead name. But the real reason I stepped away from the theater was that I needed to step away from everything that was seriously associated with my male identity. Last year I was like, “I wanna go back to theater!”
What led to that moment?
From the time I got my name change in 2011 and started living full-time as me—going to the women’s bathroom as me and dating men as me out in public—I was like, Damn, I’ll bet I would be even better onstage now; I feel more grounded and rooted.
Performing for the first time as a transgender actress in Raggedy And—what was that like?
It confirmed what I was able to feel in auditions and staged readings—that when you build a character on who you really are, you do a lot better job as an actor. When I was male, I always felt something was wrong. So it was thrilling for me to go out on that stage with that kind of confidence, knowing that I was delivering a real flesh-and-blood human being and could be alert and alive to everything onstage.
When did you realize you were transgender?
In acting school in London, I was cast as a female in a reverse-gender version of Edward II. The directors told me that was by far my best work. But really the whole thing started around 2004—because I was extremely unhappy. I was to the point where if I couldn’t figure something out, I was just going to check out. So I’m not courageous. I started considering this just to save my life.
How did your parents handle the decision?
My mom passed away in 2002, and when you lose a parent, it liberates you in a way—one less thing telling you who you are or aren’t. I mean, it wasn’t like, Oh, Mom’s gone, I’m gonna wear a dress! Then my dad remarried in 2005, and partly because of who he married, I felt strong enough to come out to my family. My stepmom was very open-minded, very strong-minded, and if she loved you, she loved you.
GO:I Am My Own Wife runs November 4 to December 10 at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave. $10 to $40. aboutfacetheatre.com