Debuting in October, Tunnel City tells the story of Harry Allen, a transgender man
who lived in the early 20th century.
In mid-October, playwright Grayson Ashford, director Elliot Lorenc, and Pacific University’s theater department will debut “Tunnel City,” a play that depicts the true story of Harry Allen, a transgender man who lived in the early 1900s. The play highlights his numerous adventures and feats during the 20th century. “Trans people have always been here,” says Ashford, the playwright of Tunnel City. “As long as there have been humans somewhere, there’s been trans people there. It’s something that I would like for people to take away from this as a real story.”
Ashford originally came across Allen’s name in 2019 while searching through records of known trans people in the 20th century. He shared that out of all the names—some of which were names of doctors and scientists—Allen’s stood out to him. “I found Harry Allen, who was most notable for being a criminal during the early 20th century.” Allen was put in jail several times for wearing men’s clothes. He was also the subject of many eccentric headlines for doing things like biting police officers or saying outlandish things. Ashford was drawn to Allen’s unlawful nature and “wild west lifestyle,” as it isn’t often used to tell stories about trans people. He hopes to use Allen’s gunslinging persona to honor him the way he would have wanted.
To truly understand Allen’s story, Ashford ventured deep into the records of his life. Like a detective, Ashland explains that he searched through news articles, police reports, and even ancestry.com to uncover and piece together the events in Allen’ life. When asked about the most significant hardship producing the play, Ashford responded, “I think the biggest problem probably happened in early development, in that research part of writing it.” Ashford expressed that almost all of the information available on Allen’s life portrayed him unfavorably, leaving the difficult task of figuring out who Allen really was underneath his misleading public image. Because of how people talk about trans people now, as opposed to 100 years ago, Ashford wishes to show respect for Allen’s story in a way that no one else ever has.
As “Tunnel City” is such a meaningful story for transgender people, the Pacific University theater department has the not-so-easy task of bringing the project to life. Ashford praises the group’s talent and commitment to doing Harry Allen’s story justice. “We’ve got a fantastic director and a mind-blowingly amazing cast. I couldn’t have hand-crafted these people to tell the story better if I tried.”
Now that Ashford has finished writing the production, he is eager to watch the actors take the stage. He expresses his excitement seeing Lornenc and Pacific’s actors bring his vision to life. “Words that were literally just on a page are now people that are doing these actions and making it happen, and it’s amazing.”
The theater department has taken advantage of Allen’s story and the unique Western theme it incorporates. The play features multiple choreographed fist fights, some including weapons like knives and broken bottles. Pacific even had to bring in a fight choreographer to help direct some scenes. Ashford revels in the fruits of his labor, acknowledging how rewarding it is to see these scenes played out in real life. “I can write out that a fight happens in this scene, but it’s a whole other thing to get to see [it].”
Ashford notes that “Tunnel City” could not have been written at a more crucial juncture. The battle for trans rights continues to rage across the country, and Ashford hopes this project will validate transgender people. Harry’s journey proves that trans people have always, and will always, continue to exist. Ashford notes that there is a contemporary misconception that transgender identity is only a symptom of modernity. However, as Ashford knows, “It’s clearly not because they’ve always been here.” — Grace Holmes