Theater trailblazer L Morgan Lee made history when she became the first openly transgender Tony Award nominee for her performance in A Strange Loop.
A Strange Loop received 11 Tony nominations in 2021 including one for L Morgan Lee, who played Thought 1, one of 5 “thoughts” who portray a variety of entities that swirl around the protagonist Usher’s head. Lee’s nomination altered the course of the Tonys’ 75-year history and has opened the door for other out transgender performers to be recognized for their contributions to Broadway and beyond.
A Strange Loop was the first Broadway show written by gay Black man Michael R. Jackson, who wrote it over the course of two decades while he worked as an usher on Broadway helping people to find their seats at shows like The Lion King. What was special about including Lee in the casting was the fact that she was a Black trans woman originating a role that was simply written for a woman. But this also didn’t happen overnight for Lee. She has been performing for 20 years Off-Broadway, regionally, nationally, and internationally. We caught up with Lee to discuss how she feels about making history, what’s next for her, and three key words of advice to transgender women out there!
Kyle Jackson: How did it feel to make history last year as the first openly transgender woman to be nominated for a Tony?
L Morgan Lee: Gosh…the overwhelming feeling, once I stopped crying, was gratitude. I’ve been in this business for over twenty years. I remember growing up watching the Tony Awards and dreaming. I didn’t think it wasn’t possible because I’d never seen a woman like me there at all, let alone having her work be acknowledged. I want to believe there are some young women who saw my nomination and now know it’s possible. I have to also say, during the Tony season, the thing I didn’t expect to feel was a sort of sisterhood amongst the other ladies in the Featured Actress in a Musical category. Kind words and flowers…it did not feel like a “competition” and I loved that. The nomination itself was a win and being recognized with that group of women was, in some ways, a sort of gender euphoria that I had not expected. It was empowering and the category felt like a celebration of womanhood.
In what ways are you hoping your Tony nomination and your role in A Strange Loop will shape the future course of the musical theatre and entertainment industry?
L Morgan Lee: As I mentioned before, I hope the nomination gives hope, or an extra boost, to those who could use the encouragement. And as far as I’m concerned, my role in A Strange Loop was simply an example of a role for a Black Woman or femme that was originated by an actress who is trans. The role itself is not trans specific, so the casting does not have to be. But because a trans woman played the role first, there is space for others to be included in the room without people thinking it will somehow change the wheel. Can you sing the score? Can you tell the story? THAT is what is important. We all hold many intersections and it’s rather insulting to have any of our existences be diminished to a single trait.
I am not alone in that and I hope the growing amount of visibility will help conversations around a number of underrepresented groups in our industry continue to evolve. We have quite a ways to go…and that’s everyone from producers to creative teams to actors to the audience buying tickets. We all have so much to learn.
I recently read that you will be starring in a musical adaptation of The Danish Girl in London. As a fellow Black actor/theatre geek and American currently living in London, I’m so excited about this and I’ll be there! Can you tell us a bit about the person you will be portraying in this musical, and why she is important both to the show and trans/LGBTQ history?
L Morgan Lee: Speaking of incredible storytellers, Alex Parker and Katie Lam are the writing team creating The Danish Girl, which is an adaptation of the novel by David Ebershoff (who is the dream of a man that gave my name to the team.) The show is still in the development phase and centers artist Lili Elbe, one of the first women to undergo gender affirming surgeries, and her relationship with her wife, Gerda Gottlieb. The process of making this piece has been SO incredible and the way that Katie and Alex show in the writing, how closely they’ve listened to the many conversations had by trans and nonbinary artists that they’ve brought on as consultants, some of which are also close friends, is revelatory. It is very difficult material and asks for quite the deep dive emotionally but when the room is built with such respect and care, it feels safe to go where we need to. Something that many do not know about Lili is that she was living openly and thriving as a socialite for well over a decade before she began her medical transition. She was an example of trans excellence at a time when there were no labels or many others in the public eye to look to. This was not noted in the 2015 film, but is definitely part of the musical. It is important to see trans people not only dealing with obstacles but also being loved and celebrated. To be asked to play Lili was not something I saw coming whatsoever…but I’m so thrilled (and proud) to be a part of this ride!
Do you celebrate Pride and/or Juneteenth each year?
L Morgan Lee: I celebrate them every day…June is when the rest of the world decides to acknowledge us. I’m not a big party girl, so I’ll likely keep things low key. I directed a presentation with students this June and I’m also in pre-production on a film project.
Being a Black Trans woman is not bolded, underlined and italicized for me because I live it everyday. It is my norm. June is a month where the world points the microscope at me a bit more and reminds me of all of the preconceptions people have about Trans women, about Black women, about women, period. I’m just trying to live my life. I’m just trying to find breath and do the work that I’m passionate about and help those who could use a reminder that they’re not alone. I celebrate the generations of shoulders that I stand on everyday…none of us would have anything without their work, their blood, sweat and tears. They deserve year round appreciation and though we’re not enslaved, the fight for true liberation is ongoing.
You recently performed An Evening WIth L Morgan Lee presented by the National Queer Theatre. Do you have any other shows or events coming up this year that we should know about?
L Morgan Lee: Thanks for asking! The concert was originally part of Carnegie Hall’s Women in Music Festival and presented by National Queer Theatre, Musical Theatre Factory and MCC Theater. It was such a special night. You can check out one of the songs here actually:
There are a few things coming throughout the year – you can follow me on Instagram (@lmorganlee) to stay tuned!
If you had to encourage another young, Black transgender entertainer using only three or four words, what would you say?
L Morgan Lee: Never stop dreaming.
L Morgan Lee Leads Breaking the Binary Summer Musical Theater Intensive
Breaking the Binary Theatre has partnered with Tony Award nominee and Core Community Advisory Board member L Morgan Lee (she/her, A Strange Loop) on the company’s first ever BTB Summer Intensive program.
BTB will offer free sessions across three Mondays (July 31, August 7, and August 14) for a group of six transgender, non-binary, and Two-Spirit+ (TNB2S+) musical theatre performers chosen via an open submissions who will have the opportunity to work with L Morgan Lee to build confidence with audition materials, forge new industry connections, and hone in on their craft and artistry.
- On Monday July 31, the group will meet with Lee to work through and discuss material based on a prompt circulated before the session.
- On Monday August 7, Lee will be joined by a TNB2S+ industry professional to discuss navigating the industry as a TNB2S+ artist. They will also work through new audition material given to each participant by Lee following the first week.
- On Monday August 14, Lee and Founding Artistic Director George Strus (they/them) will be joined by three cis-industry professionals that will meet individually with each participant to perform material refined throughout the first two sessions for the guests.
The BTB Summer Intensive is completely free for accepted participants. Breaking the Binary Theatre defines a “TNB2S+ artist” as any artist who does not correspond with the male and female binary and is transgender, non-binary, Two-Spirit, gender non-conforming, genderqueer, agender, gender expansive, bigender, gender fluid, or otherwise lives outside of the cisnormative gender binary. For more information on BTB’s usage of “TNB2S+,” please visit: www.btb-nyc.com/overview.