Old Red Lion play ‘Rachael’s Cafe’ retells how six-foot Eric turned into Rachael

The real Rachael and Lucy Danser

The real Rachael and Lucy Danser - Credit: Archant

As midwestern stereotypes go, Eric Wininger had it all. Living a small-town life in Bloomington, Indiana, the married father of three was a wood-chopping, motorcycle-riding churchgoer who earned his keep selling ink toner from door to door.

It was a shock to many people, therefore, when Wininger disappeared from the world and re-emerged as six-foot transgender woman Rachael Jones. In a notoriously conservative American state, it was an even bigger test of character when she subsequently decided to risk everything and open a café. Now, however, a new play at the Old Red Lion Theatre is telling her story.

“Rachael’s café was a little bit outside the main drag. It had that second-hand bookshop kind of vibe,” says Queen’s Park playwright Lucy Danser, 26, who stumbled across the café during her university year abroad five years ago. “I was looking for a place where I could take my laptop to write and it had a sign on its door saying ‘great coffee, great wi-fi’.”

It was then that she first met Jones. The latter’s height and lack of any surgical or hormonal treatment meant that Danser recognised the friendly waitress as transgender quickly. She was immediately struck by her charm.

“She was instantly captivating. I came from London and, having worked in theatre, thought I was used to crossdressing and that I’d have nothing to learn from small-town Indiana.

“But I’d never met a transgender person before and didn’t really know how to break the ice. Rachael was so warm, though, and welcomed me immediately. She doesn’t hold back, in that she doesn’t think you’re stupid for asking questions, but if she thinks it’s inappropriate, she’ll also call you out on that.”

Caring personality

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Drawn to her caring personality and fascinating life history, Danser choose Jones as her interviewee when asked to find a find a subject for a university project. Tasked with the theme of hunting, she chose “hunting for gender” and the pair sat down one quiet afternoon in the café. They ended up talking for five hours.

The eventual result was Rachael’s Café, a one-person show which looks back at the life of Jones, as played by Graham Elwell. Starting from her beginnings as Eric Wininger, it charts her journey from determinedly macho Indiana man to comfortably transgender woman. It has already helped other members of the trans community struggling with their identity during its intial run at the Edinburgh Fringe.

“I think I was quite lucky, because, in the last year or so, talking about trans has become a big thing with films like Dallas Buyers Club (which stars Jared Leto as a trans woman). But when I wrote the play, I wasn’t writing about a transgender woman, I was writing about a person I found very special, warm and very brave to open a café with no capital.”

Understandably, despite approving the script throughout, when Jones first viewed her life being re-enacted to strangers on stage, she wasn’t immediately convinced.

“She didn’t like it at first. She didn’t think she was like Graham and thought it was a very theatrical version of herself. It was only when she asked a good friend from Bloomington for her thoughts and was told that this was how we see her that she began to warm to it.

“After that, she was approached by two or three people who hadn’t begun living publically as trans, who said it had had a significant impact on their thinking.

“That was when the change happened and now she’s promoting it even out there in Indiana.”

Having overcome societal, financial and family problems to retain her confidence and winning personality, Jones has clearly had an impact on Danser’s perception.

“I do think there’s a big gap in what the trans community assume we understand and what the public actually does. For instance, even after years of studying it, I still can’t understand how someone could feel like they’ve been born into the wrong gender and I don’t think you really can unless it’s happened to you.

“But that is one of the unique things about Rachael – she bridges that gap. There’s something very lovely in how she just deals with it and that’s what I hope to put across. “That first meeting had such an impact on me and I wanted others to experience it too.”

Rachael’s Café runs at the Old Red Lion Theatre from February 25 until March 15. Tickets are £15. For more information, visit www.oldredliontheatre.co.uk