History-Making Queer Play Sheds Light On A Unique Relationship Challenge

An award-winning British play that explores an unusual journey toward love and acceptance within the LGBTQ community just made its hotly-anticipated New York debut. 

Jon Brittain’s “Rotterdam,” which began performances at Manhattan’s 59E59 Theater May 17, follows Alice (played by Alice McCarthy), a closeted lesbian who plans to finally come out to her family after living with her partner in the Netherlands for seven years. At the same time, her partner (Anna Martine Freeman) tells Alice that he identifies as transgender.  

Though Brittain’s play grapples with themes of sexuality and identity, “Rotterdam” is ultimately a romantic comedy and, as such, concludes on an upbeat note for its central couple. The playwright, whose theatrical résumé also includes “A Super Happy Story (About Feeling Super Sad)” and “The Sexual Awakening of Peter Mayo,” told HuffPost that he began writing the play after several of his close friends came out to him as transgender. At the time, he said, he hadn’t seen many trans characters depicted in theater. 

“Over the years, I’ve tried to include LGBTQ characters in my work, even when they’re not the leads,” Brittain said. Over time, he became interested in “the idea of a character who have come to terms with their sexuality, who would then have to reconcile with their partner’s sense of identity,” and then find a way to reconcile the relationship. 

Brittain, who identifies as straight, said he was aware that his perspective on queer issues could be interpreted as “problematic” and, as such, went to extra lengths to “do the legwork” and be “respectful” as he wrote “Rotterdam.”

“There was a slight worry in my mind that it would seem cynical. I am aware that I carry a huge male privilege into this arena,” he said. “I know I’m writing about other people’s experiences… I like to think that I take that responsibility very seriously.”  

To that end, critics seem to be on board with Brittain’s work. “Rotterdam,” which premiered at London’s Theatre 503, has received almost universal acclaim since its 2015 debut. The Evening Standard called it a “lively, sensitive, hard-hitting piece about love, gender and sexuality,” while The Stage praised it for “managing to speak eloquently about a complex issue.” It went on to make history in April when it nabbed an Olivier Award (the British version of a Tony Award) for Outstanding Achievement in an Affiliate Theatre. That honor made it the first play to feature a transgender protagonist to win an Olivier. 

Ultimately, Brittain would be happy if “Rotterdam” encouraged conversations about LGBTQ relationships outside of the theater, too. 

“I think the play raises some questions more so than it comes down to specific answers,” he told HuffPost. “It would great if people came away thinking, ‘I need to educate myself and find out more,’ and that those who have already educated themselves see it as a positive contribution to that conversation.”

Jon Brittain’s “Rotterdam” runs at 59E59 Theater in New York through June 10. Head here for more details. 

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