Pictured (l-r): Chuck Quinn IV as Billy, Cameron J. Armstrong as Walter, Billy Rude as Jeffrey, Dani Shay as Young Albert, Josiah Robinson (Ensemble) and Roy Samra (Ensemble). Photo by Cole Simon.

By Brynne Frauenhoffer

Prior to a recent tweet by President Trump, you may have never heard the incredibly true story of Albert Cashier, a Union soldier from Illinois who fought in over 40 battles during the Civil War. But Trump’s online declaration in July against transgender soldiers serving in the military had the unintended effect of prompting many media outlets to share this compelling piece of history.

Cashier immigrated to the U.S. from Ireland in his youth, when he was still known as Jennifer Hodgers. From the time he joined the 95th Illinois Infantry in 1862, through his heroic years of service, to nearly the end of his life, he lived as Albert—until a medical examination in 1914 revealed the sex assigned to him at birth. He was then stripped of his pension and prosecuted for impersonating a soldier.

Years ago, long before the renewed political interest in this story, Jay Paul Deratany discovered traces of it and began a draft of what would become “The CiviliTy of Albert Cashier.”

In addition to his career as a frequently-produced, GLAAD Award-nominated playwright and screenwriter, Deratany also practices law and has been listed as one of the Top 100 Illinois Litigation Lawyers. “For most of my legal career, I’ve done human rights cases of different sorts, and, of course, I’m a gay man, and LGBT issues have been important,” Deratany says.

The same causes that motivate him as a lawyer drive his writing, such as HARAM IRAN, a play based on the public execution of two teenage boys in Iran in 2005, allegedly for the crime of homosexuality. Deratany’s humanitarian and writing passions converged perfectly once more in telling Cashier’s story.

“I also happen to be a history buff,” Deratany says. Very quickly, he confesses, “I’d become a little obsessed” with the facts he could find about Cashier.

Deratany’s enthusiasm led him to visit the tiny town of Saunemin, Illinois, where Cashier spent most of his life after the war.

“I went and saw where Albert lived in a one room cabin, and where his headstone was, and became even more obsessed and wrote some more.”

Over coffee, Deratany mentioned his work to Keaton Wooden, who would become the show’s director and co-composer. Wooden asked to join the project and proposed turning the play into a musical.

“[Wooden] found Joe Stevens, who happened to be a transgender artist,” says Deratany. “I just became in love with Joe’s music…so then I said, ‘Okay, let’s do this!’”

Dani Shay as Young Albert. Photo by Cole Simon.

Stevens and Wooden worked together to write the music, while Deratany penned the book and contributed some of the lyrics. “I think Joe’s magic touch with the music was just incredible, he’s just an incredible artist, I can’t say enough about him,” says Deratany. “And Keaton’s ability to co-compose this…it’s so terrific.”

In developing the piece, the creative team reached out to the people and groups represented in their work.

“We did three workshops,” says Deratany. “We really wanted to listen to the community, and by the community, I mean the transgender community, because of that I think they’ve had a strong voice in this piece.”

Historians have questioned Albert’s motives for living as male, with some proposing that he was transgender, and others suggesting that life as a man was simply preferable to the physical, economical, and social constraints of living as a woman in the era. Thus, the creative team for “The CiviliTy of Albert Cashier” carefully considered their portrayal of Albert’s gender identity.

“One of the things that I think was very clear, and that I thought worked certainly, is that we didn’t want to ever have Albert identify as female,” asserts Deratany. “And even when I talked to reporters I said, ‘Please use a ‘he’ because [Albert] wanted to identify as he.’”

However, in creating the musical, the team acknowledged the limitations of language and identity during Cashier’s lifetime. “It couldn’t be on the nose, because Albert didn’t even know what the word ‘transgender’ was,” Deratany says. “So Albert didn’t fight to be transgender, Albert fought to be Albert as an individual.”

When the time came to finally produce the musical, according to Deratany, the choice for the premiere location was clear.

“I felt like it had to be, first and foremost, an Illinois story. It’s all about the Illinois regiment and what Illinois contributed to the Civil War,” says Deratany. “I just feel like it’d be good luck—karma—to start in Illinois.”

The show’s producers, Permoveo Productions, also joined with the Chicago company Pride Films & Plays for the premiere.

Heading into a full production, the team had to find an actor to anchor its cast as Young Albert.

Dani Shay

“We wanted to have a trans individual or at least a gender non-conforming individual for Young Albert,” Deratany says. Producer and casting director Robert Ullrich recommended bringing in Dani Shay, who Ullrich had worked with on TV’s The Glee Project 2.

Privately, Shay had been exploring their own identity after building their career through their online following and turns on America’s Got Talent and The Glee Project.

“As far as my own personal journey goes,” says Shay, “I had made friends with a couple of different trans people over the last year or two…I started to explore and learn lots of different things about gender identity. And really, I’d always been somebody who questioned and lived on my own terms, questioned the gender binary and things like that…As I discovered more and more about different identities and labels that people identify with, I realized that I have a trans identity and that I’m trans.”

To specify, Shay adds, “Nonbinary trans masculine is what I’m feeling most close to identified with.”

It was just on the heels of this period of self-exploration that Shay was called in to read for Young Albert.

“This year, when I really embraced that term [trans] for myself, it was only like two months later that I got a phone call from Robert [Ullrich],” says Shay. “He started telling me about this play and my jaw just dropped…It was just kind of this magical click moment where I just thought, ‘This is perfect. I have to get this role.’ So I stayed up all night learning ‘Bullet in a Gun,’ which is one of my big solos. I learned it on guitar and I went in for an audition just a few days later.”

When Shay auditioned for the role, Deratany remembers, “Within a minute, I knew Dani was our Albert. I knew. First of all, as soon as Dani started singing, their voice just resonates with you. And then Dani just has a way with their personality and their energy that is just—I just felt like that was the character that I wrote about.”

Prior to and throughout rehearsals, Shay and Deratany both performed extensive research to understand Cashier’s daily life and the raw experiences of the Civil War.

“Not everything [in the show] is historical,” Deratany, says, “but I think that’s just artistic liberty. I really tried to stay true to the story, stay true to the historical facts, essentially. And I love doing research…For example, I spent an entire two days researching corsets that were worn in the 1800s versus the early 1900s, two periods in which Albert lived.”

“You want me to get real nerdy about guns for a second?” Shay laughs, before describing their own research on the invention of the rifle, the development of the mini-ball as a more accurate bullet. “That, going through a spiraled barrel, became a very, very accurate shot and so, therefore, obviously more deadly,” Shay explains. “So it was such a just such a bloody war.”

Shay has also diligently worked on Cashier’s accent, even spending evenings conversing with Irish immigrants in Lincoln Park pubs. “It’s finding that perfect balance, because [Cashier] had immigrated, and he was, I’m sure, trying to blend and fit in in his own way,” explains Shay, “but also you can’t help an accent to a degree—so having a little bit of it in there, but having the sensation of also trying to cover it sometimes.”

Discussing Cashier’s experience as a trans immigrant, as well as the Civil War era of the musical, leads to examples of how starkly relevant the show has become in just the past few weeks. Speaking with Deratany, his language adopts a kind of patriotism that echoes sentiments of the Union.

Katherine Condit as Old Albert and Delia Kropp as Nurse. Photo by Cole Simon.

“I think what Trump did—I don’t have any problems saying that it was awful,” Deratany says. “And I don’t think that’s the way most Americans think. To say that a group of people are a burden when they’re in the military is incredibly wrong-headed. Anybody who can pass all the exams, get into our military, and wants to voluntarily fight for our country….should be allowed to fight for our country. So I think that that edict, or whatever you call it—tweet? order?—was just really wrong-headed, and it’s unfortunate because we don’t survive as a country by being divided. We survive by being united.”

Shay reflects, “What happened in Charlottesville, and the relevance of there still being so much, so much hatred and so much racism—obviously that’s what the Union was fighting against, even back then…Here we are in 2017 still dealing with these issues in a very real and scary way.”

For Shay, the play’s urgency in this political climate helps them connect to Cashier’s motivations for fighting on the Union side.

“We feel like Albert goes on this journey…and I went to this place too, where I went from a place of almost wanting to prove myself and prove my ability and live up to this idea that I had for myself,” Shay related. “Then, when real confidence kicks in, which is purpose-driven, [that’s] when you see something that’s bigger than yourself, and something that you get to be a part of that will hopefully help in the bigger picture.”

Cashier’s journey, Shay feels, mirrors their own.

“There are so many things; there are so many reasons this is important right now. It’s wild because I feel like that’s exactly what Albert was feeling…To be able to be a part of [this show] and use art to make a statement is something that I’ve always dreamt of, and that’s what I feel my purpose is.”

While The CiviliTy of Albert Cashier touches on so many hot-button issues, Deratany and Shay both express eloquently how it seeks to connect with audiences rather than convert them to one way of thinking.

“It doesn’t clobber people over the head,” Deratany stresses. “There’s something in it for everybody…You don’t have to know about transgender rights, but you can know that Albert had a right to his life as an individual and be free from harassment by the government.”

“My sincere hope is that it will build more understanding and empathy and open people’s eyes to the fact that there are just so many different kinds of people,” Shay says, “and that everybody has something to contribute. And that’s pretty much it. We can all just be nice to each other, and accept the fact that we each have something to contribute.”

As the nation struggles with a polarizing administration and vastly differing views on LGBT issues, Deratany insists, “I think we need to talk to each other. We’re not going to get anywhere with this constant screaming at each other…we’re not going to get anywhere by calling the other political side jerks, horrible people, because some of those people are my brother or my friends. We need to understand each other, we need to communicate with each other, we need to meet people. I know that even when I first met an individual, and actually talked to an individual, who is transgender, that any even inkling of a thought that they’re so different from me evaporated!…So you have to meet people. You have to know someone. And [in this show] you get to know someone within our military, who fought for our country. And that’s what I think is so powerful about this story.”

THE CIVILITY OF ALBERT CASHIER runs through October 15th. For more information visit albertcashierthemusical.com.

About author

Brynne Frauenhoffer

Brynne spent most of her childhood performing The Lion King as a one-woman show and writing spec scripts for Pokemon. As an adult, she has decided to basically keep doing things like that forever. After graduating with a BFA in Drama from The University of Oklahoma, she moved to Chicago, where she now pursues playwriting, acting, and comedy.