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Making Faces: A Journey Into Gender

Friday, March 26, 1999 at 10:18 AM

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Many of us go through life playing a number of roles, wearing different faces in different situations. A Cleveland actor and writer found that he had been suppressing his true self by pretending to be what society considers "normal." 90.3's David C. Barnett reports that this charade led to the production of a play which opened this month in New York.

DCB- In many ways, Cleveland actor Richard Howey was a typical boy, growing up in the 1950s. He began a lifetime of role-playing by emulating his hero, Roy Rogers, and he didn’t have much use for girls.

Christine Howey- It was odd—I wanted to be Roy Rogers. I also wanted to be Dale Evans. I loved sports, but I also loved the feminine things. But I knew that, in the 1950s, that sort of thing was prohibited, so I just didn’t do it.

DCB- Richard Howey’s love of feminine things went much deeper than the appeal of a beautiful dress or an intriguing scent. As he grew older, he came to the conclusion that, anatomical evidence to the contrary, he was a woman. Somewhere inside, where the X and Y chromosomes had been distributed, where the hormones circulate—there had been a mix-up.

CH- It was a very gradual process. I came to realize that I wanted to be a girl. I wanted to play on the porch with the girls, became aware of those roles and where I was supposed to fit in. Until, by the time I was about 45, I became very desperate—I was in a very bad situation.

DCB- And that bad situation was compounded by the fact that he had married his high school sweetheart, and even though his wife Dinah was very tolerant and understanding, their relationship was very strained. They would eventually separate, and Richard would make the drastic step of putting things right by undergoing what is called: “sexual reassignment surgery”. He became Christine Howey, and she has now written a play about her transformation.

CH- It’s been wonderful watching it come to life, a dream come true.

DCB- The play is called Making Faces and it debuted off-Broadway in New York, earlier this month. Making Faces features actor Lenny Pinna playing over 25 characters in a series of monolgues that reflect the multiple conflicts of Richard Howey’s life.

Lenny Pinna- This is the most challenging role I’ve ever had.

DCB- Howey’s confusion over who she was is made real for actor Lenny Pinna, because he’s constantly jumping between characters and trying to remember how each one is supposed to feel at any given time.

LP- I have gone out of sequence a couple of times because he doesn’t go in chronology. Peter will be age 16, then baby, then age 12, then 30, because it’s structured emotionally. And then, you’ll go in and out of your character—sometimes I’ll be me, sometimes I’ll be my mother, my daughter, my wife—and, again, you could lose yourself for a second.

DCB- Compounding the range of emotions for the former Richard Howey was another feminine presence in his life, daughter Noelle. When Noelle reached the age of 14, Dinah told her the story of Richard’s gender conflicts and that he was going to leave. Noelle’s reaction to this shocking news was equally surprising. She was thrilled that her father was going to be out of her life.

Noelle Howey- My mother was always a lot more affectionate than my father. But, I have to say, I thought the way he acted was normal. I saw a lot of fathers in my neighborhood who didn’t react to their wives, who didn’t hug their wives, who were not affectionate, who were not loving. I thought my father was normal. What occurred to me was that he may have been difficult, but he was still a jerk and my mother was wonderful and she should get away from him.

DCB- Today, Chris Howey has a better understanding of who she is, and is attempting to counteract popular media representations portrayed in films like La Cage au Folle or The Silence of the Lambs. This process of getting the story straight, about a not-so-straight life, has been a cause for healing in the Howey family, as well. Ex-wife Dinah runs a graphic arts firm which designed the Making Faces programs, and daughter Noelle is the play’s producer.

NH- We feel we have the really more common perspective of somebody who is going through this, who never wanted to be particularly flamboyant, who wasn’t seeking to be a drag queen or Boy George, or something. Just wanted to be able to go to K-Mart and buy potholders without having people make fun of him.

DCB- The transition Richard Howey made in becoming Christine, the confusion of an actor trying to balance over 25 characters, and the confusion of gender roles in our society are the unusual elements that combine to make “Making Faces” a more universal story.

For Infohio, I’m David C. Barnett in Cleveland.

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