This November will mark the 38th year that the Goodman Theatre has presented A Christmas Carol. Joined by Hell in a Handbag’s ninth annual Christmas show, the fourth year of Profiles’s Hellcab and numerous others, it’s fair to say that Chicago theater has a long-held and well-loved tradition of the holiday show. This holiday season, emerging Chicago playwright Dakota Parobek will add their voice to this tradition, with their play Merry Christmas, Mulch Pile! receiving a one-week run with Mercy Street Theatre. The play features all the good cheer one would expect for a Christmas play, but with the hope of providing an experience that will change us all year long.
With an aesthetic described as “ramshackle” and “kitsch,” with overt nods to the inclusion created by community theater, Merry Christmas, Mulch Pile! turns tradition on its head. Santa decides he is done with the Santa lifestyle, and instead decides to live under a bridge and leave the world without Christmas. On his final trip around the globe, Santa meets and befriends Laura, a young trans woman coming to terms with her identity.
Merry Christmas, Mulch Pile! is the result of “a collision of two interests and conflicts.” Its inception occurred during Parobek’s sophomore year of college, when they [their preferred pronoun] were struggling with gender identity and depression, accompanied by a fascination with Charlie Brown and his association with Christmas. It was from this that the development journey of this play began. The play was first workshopped at Columbia College with director friend J. Cody Spellman, at which point Jake Fruend met and fell in love with Dakota’s work. Fast forward a few years and numerous iterations, and Parobek, now an ensemble member at Mercy Street Theatre, is receiving a full production of the play. Fruend, now associate artistic director of the same company, directs.
The journey of the play is also an apt reflection of Parobek’s journey through depression and identifying as gender-queer. Around the time of the play’s inception, as Parobek was exploring their gender identity, they discovered online and physical communities, which, instead of alienating, created the space for exploration and self-acceptance. It was through their experience with these communities, which Parobek describes as filled with “nothing but support,” that they “gathered voices” to develop the narrative of the play. However, they emphasize that while Merry Christmas, Mulch Pile! tells an important story of the trans experience, it is not meant as a cover-all. “Only being able to speak for myself,” Parobek explains, “…I definitely don’t want to speak for anyone else’s experience in this play — I’ve always had that in mind in the development of the play.”
Recently there has been a spate of media coverage on the stories of those who identify as transgender or gender fluid, but Parobek marks Merry Christmas, Mulch Pile! as different because it is written by someone who has already lived through these experiences. While they do feel positive towards American society’s growing openness and increasing frequency of discussion around gender identity, Parobek still finds the current media coverage problematic. “A lot of media dealing with trans issues is made for a cis audience,” they observe. “What does that do for the trans community? They have to watch someone else tell their story?”
Parobek fears that the nature of the current conversation, from an educational, cisgendered perspective, will remain just that — a conversation.
With the hope of turning dialogue into action, Mercy Street’s production of Merry Christmas, Mulch Pile! is being presented in association with Chicago House, a longstanding agency serving the disenfranchised, especially those identifying as LGBTQ. The idea is not just to encourage attendees to match their ticket price in donations to Chicago House, but to create a place outside the theater where audiences can, as Parobek puts it, “bring together cis and trans people to talk, and for cis people to listen to, instead of being, the voice.”
Click here to find out more about Parobek’s Merry Christmas, Mulch Pile!