With “Pose,” representation of LGBTQ people and people of color is intentional on and off screen. Murphy tapped writer, trans activist and author Janet Mock as a producer and writer. Mock also directed an episode. Our Lady J, who has also worked on “Transparent” lends her skills to “Pose” as a producer and writer.
Seen through the eyes of black transgender women and LGBTQ youths, “Pose” pays homage to the ballroom scene first unveiled in the award-winning documentary “Paris Is Burning.” Contestants compete by “walking” in various categories: intricate, themed performances in which they twist their bodies into elegant poses — called voguing — while the crowd claps, snaps and jeers. The show also explores how queer people created support systems called “houses” for those who did not live with their traditional families but instead lived with mothers, fathers and siblings of their own choosing.
The Washington Post chatted with actress and singer Mj Rodriguez, who plays Blanca Evangelista, a tough, loving mother who is determined to leave her mark on the ballroom scene. Rodriguez took on “Pose” after receiving plenty of buzz on Broadway, where she debuted as a “gender queer” woman named Angel Dumott Schunard in “Rent.”
This transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
“Paris Is Burning” was also set around the 1980s, but how do you think that “Pose” is moving the conversation forward?
“Paris Is Burning” was only just a glimpse into what was happening within the ballroom scene. The difference is that “Pose” is opening the lens a little bit more, and it’s diving into the personal lives of these women who fought for their kids — who raised their kids to be strong individuals so that they can move on and have a legacy, too.
Can you talk a little about the ballroom scene as family or an avenue for creating family?
This is the place where you see your sisters, where you see your brothers. I mean, yes, you have your rivalries and that’s all cute and dandy, but at the end of the day, most of these people came together because they knew that the outside world, especially in 1987, would not accept them.
Where did you draw the inspiration to play Blanca? Are there any mothers that you were inspired by?
There’s one specific person who actually was my house father. He was the one who instilled a lot of things in me as far as my technique. But most importantly, believe it or not, what I truly pulled from when it comes to just the mother aspect of it is my actual mother. She’s just been a strong poignant figure in my life, and I just make sure I show homage to the character. I try to act most of the time like my mother, but I try to incorporate both of their nuances or some of their personality traits within Blanca.
What has taking on “Pose” been like versus your other roles?
Me being a trans woman who is heterosexual, I thought that straight people would just completely nix it and would be like “No, this is not it — we don’t see it.” But, honey, they have been seeing it! And I really do believe it’s because of the writing. The reception of the show has been so wonderful and for people who have been marginalized for such a long time, especially the African American and Latino side of the community, to see how our stories are finally being told and in the most loving, raw way.
The show also tackles this idea of realness. What does that mean to Blanca?
Blanca sees realness as an authentic way of living, and that simply means just walking down the street and just being undetectable — not because of her transness, but she’s just simply being. She’s just truly living her real and unapologetic self. And also, I mean with it being 1987, she incorporates being able to “pass.” This was a situation back in the day where passing was not a privilege, it was a survival tactic, and a lot of women of trans experience … would resort to "passing" in order to survive. (The term “passing” refers to being accepted or acknowledged as a member of a certain group based on conventional social norms; for transgender people, “passing” means being acknowledged for the gender they identify with and not the biological term or sex assigned at birth.)
Would you say that Blanca is an activist or somebody who wants to be a voice for the community?
I do think she advocates for her community. She wants the world to be a better place, and she wants acceptance from everyone, and she’s going to fight for that whether it be in the ballroom or whether it be at a gay bar. And sadly that [discrimination against trans women of color] is something that still goes on. But I’m glad that something like this is showing that there were women like Blanca and there were women like Angel or Elektra or Candy or Lulu. You know there was still a fight going on inside of the community, because there was still work that needed to be done. Hopefully, the community, especially the African American community, will see that this is something we went through, and this is something that we will always go through and that we always have to fight.
What does realness mean to Mj?
Realness, the category [is] realness. That is a very highlighted category, because a lot of the girls from 1987 all the way into 2018 walk that category. It’s to embellish the many aspects of womanhood they have whether it be their body or it be their face, their mannerisms. It’s just a way of life and how womanhood is [represented] through our bodies. How womanhood knocked on our door, and we said, “Okay, we’re inviting you in.” That’s how I receive it.
What do you think “Pose” is teaching people watching about family and acceptance?
I think it’s teaching people to be more open, to listen more, to understand more, to love harder, to challenge the narrative, to open their hearts up more and receive information. And, most importantly, it’s speaking about black women and the trans experience. It’s addressing the reality that we are the women we are. We are simply human, and we’ve always been the people that we’ve been.