EDGE Interview: Johanna Carlisle-Zepeda on Being the President's Queer Sister in Satiric 'POTUS'
Kilian Melloy READ TIME: 7 MIN.
Openly queer stage veteran Johanna Carlisle-Zepeda (she/they) doesn't live in Boston – "Not yet," she tells EDGE. "Not officially. I still have residency in Arizona, but Boston has become my second home."
As have the city's stages. Carlisle-Zepeda appeared in the New Rep's production of "Oliver!," SpeakEasy Stage's production of "The View Upstairs," Company One's "Miss You Like Hell," the Lyric's "Kiss of the Spider Woman," Wheelock Family Theater's "In the Heights"... the list literally goes on and on.
"I was just here doing 'Matilda' last fall," Carlisle-Zepeda notes of another Wheelock production, "so this is a nice departure from children's theatre, as well. But it's always beautiful to be able to come back to Boston."
When not working in Boston theater, the busy thesp is adding to their impressive resume, including roles in countless plays dear to the LGBTQ+ community. Among them: Mazeppa in The Phoenix Theatre Co's production of "Gypsy," Madame Thernardier in "Les Miz" at AZ Broadway Theatre, and LaVonda Dupree in "Sordid Lives" at Nearly Naked Theatre.
Currently, Carlisle-Zepeda has what might be the most fun role in SpeakEasy Stage Company's production of Selina Fillinger's stinging satirical comedy "POTUS: Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive," which follows the frantic efforts of a cadre of highly competent women at the White House doing their best to save the world from an inept president – and trying to save the president from himself – as everything from a misogynistic faux pas to a burgeoning sex scandal to World War III threatens to explode at any moment.
In addition to Carlisle-Zepeda, the cast features Marianna Bassham as Stephanie, the president's panic-stricken personal secretary; Catia as Chris, a journalist with a newborn at home and a breast milk pump perpetually at hand; Crystin Gilmore as Margaret, the tough and "earthy" First Lady; Laura Latreille as Jean, the White House press secretary; Monique Ward Lonergan as Dusty, the president's "dalliance"; and Lisa Yuen as Harriet, the White House Chief of Staff. POTUS himself, while never seen, exerts a perpetual and chaotic influence over events.
Carlisle-Zepeda plays the president's sister, Bernadette, who's stopping by the White House to lobby for a presidential pardon and deal some drugs to staffers on the side. She's also the ex to one of the president's closest advisers. As chaos ensues, the impending political inferno almost pales beside the sparks that fly anew between the two former lovers.
EDGE: You play the president's hell-raising sister, Bernadette. How does that character connect with you?
Johanna Carlisle-Zepeda: She and I have a lot of similarities – probably some that I don't want on paper. I think that there's something about her level of openness and her spiritedness and her ability to love life and enjoy it to its fullest. She is a lesbian, and I am a queer person, so I bring a little different side to it. I do have a different side of me that is not fully Bernadette. But I think that that comes through, and it still makes for beautiful storytelling.
EDGE: You saw "POTUS" five times during its Broadway run, when Lea DeLaria was playing Bernadette. What kept bringing you back?
Johanna Carlisle-Zepeda: I was doing an Off-Broadway show and I just happened to get a ticket to see "POTUS" one matinee before my night show, and the show grabbed me at the very first word. The interaction between Julie White and Suzy in that very first scene, just the connection that they had. I was like, "Okay, I don't know what this play's about, but I am fully invested." And then the powerhouse of the other five women all together – I was laughing so hard that I was like, "I didn't catch everything. I've got to go back." The second time I went and saw it, I was like, "This is a really amazing play. And it's not just these women; it's the writing of the show."
Selina Fillinger, who I believe was 27 at the time, has written a play that speaks to so many different types of female voices, including queer voices, voices of color, and older women. For such a young person to know how we feel, how we speak, how we think, how we react – I was just enthralled. And the third time I went, I just needed to watch Rachel Dratch as Stephanie. I literally watched her for the entire show.
EDGE: Your character is tough and maybe a little dangerous, but she does have some intimate moments with Jean, the White House press secretary.
Johanna Carlisle-Zepeda: She has moments of vulnerability. She finds that Jean brings out kind of the inner tough woman and, and Bernadette is like, "Oh my god, there's the Jean I've always wanted – not the one who's complaining that I screwed the caterer. I want this woman." I'm excited for these moments.
EDGE: The play dissects the ways women have to work around, and put up with, men in a male dominated power structure. But, power being what it is, would things be different if we had a woman president?
Johanna Carlisle-Zepeda: It depends on who the female president is. If a woman were to come into power, they would have so much pressure put on them I don't know how their presidency would work. There are world leaders in other countries that are women, and they have proven time and time again that they can do the job. I think America needs to stop being so fucking sorry. Like, I'm ready to have a gay president. I'm ready to have a female president. I'm ready for those things. Sorry. I just got super hyper-political.
EDGE: It's a political play.
Johanna Carlisle-Zepeda: It is a political play, but it's also not necessarily one party over the other. It's a generic president. He has Trumpisms. He has Clintonisms. He's an amalgamation. Something that impressed me [was] I saw people in the audience that were not like me, and they enjoyed it as much as I did. I thought that that was really good.
EDGE: Paula Plum is directing this production. Does it make a difference when a woman is at the helm?
Johanna Carlisle-Zepeda: I prefer it!
Johanna Carlisle-Zepeda: [Generally,] I think that there shouldn't be a difference between if it's a man or a woman at the helm. But I do feel that, in this case, it is necessary [that the director be a woman], and I feel like there's just a level of compassion that Paula brings into the room. We've all had vulnerable moments in the last few weeks; we've had loss, we've had troubles with work, and we have held each other up to get through those moments. I think that that's an unusual thing, sometimes, with a male director.
EDGE: I understand that your child, Maxx, who is nonbinary, is a drag performer. Did they get the performance bug from you?
Johanna Carlisle-Zepeda: Oh, it was 100% genetic. Maxx always had an [attraction] towards theater. I was doing "Gypsy," and they talked the director into letting them be a lion in the Uncle Jocko opening scene when they were two, so they made their stage debut at two. It wasn't up to me – they talked to the director themselves, and then started their own career. The kid could have been an equity actor as a teenager because of so much theater that they did. Then, at 12, they started their interest in drag and have been doing drag for 15 years.
It didn't hurt that we always had a household [where] I was singing or rehearsing for or getting ready to do an audition. I was tap dancing in "Kiss Me, Kate" when I was pregnant with Maxx, so I think performance was embedded into who they are.
My kid had this amazing opportunity where Lea DeLaria, during Pride in New York this year, went to my kid's drag show. Maxx got to meet Lea DeLaria and told Lea that I was playing the role [of Bernadette]. They got a picture together and I was like, "I'm so jealous." And Maxx said, "Yeah, I told her that you were a little obsessed with her... it's cool. Lea was cool about it."
SpeakEasy Stage's production of "POTUS: Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive" plays Sept. 15 – Oct. 15 at the at the Stanford Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts. For more information, follow this link.
Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.