“There’s something about the swagger of a cowboy that is just really sexy,” says Charlie Josephine, the acclaimed playwright behind Cowbois, a big queer Western show that tells the story of a handsome outlaw. “And cowboy iconography is so clear and confident.”
Cowbois follows a trans masculine ‘gender outlaw’ called Jack Cannon (played by trans actor Vinnie Heaven) as he seeks safety in a sleepy Wild West frontier town that, he discovers, is inhabited only by women – the men of the town left in the gold rush and never returned. From the outset, the plot of Cowbois is not the heterosexual, macho, misogynist fare we might expect from a classic Western.
This is very much a deliberate choice by Josephine, an award-winning actor and writer who is also co-directing Cowbois. While rewatching old Westerns during one of the Covid lockdowns, Josephine realised that, despite cowboys’ inherent sex appeal, the stories were all “really white, and really racist”. So when they began to write a new show about masculinity for the Royal Shakespeare Company, they knew it would be about cowboys – and that their telling of a cowboy story would subvert the Western genre entirely.
Cowbois keeps all the beloved hallmarks of the classic Western, from gun fights and bar room brawls to line dancing, but is populated by working-class women who are inspired and aroused by a sexy trans protagonist fighting against patriarchy. Sean Holmes, the associate artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe who co-directs Cowbois alongside Josephine, explains that “it’s deliberately an entertainment, as well as a provocation”.
Holmes and Josephine talk to the Big Issue over Zoom from Stratford-upon-Avon. They’ve just come out of a movement class with the cast, and are palpably fizzing with excitement about the show.
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Josephine is no stranger to making art that feels provocative. Last year, his re-imagining of Catholic martyr Joan of Arc as non-binary in I, Joan sparked online outrage from anti-trans campaigners and Catholics before the play had even opened at London’s Globe Theatre. The show went on to garner rave reviews from critics and audiences. While I, Joan put non-binary identity centre stage, Cowbois is a show about masculinity, working-class women and queers.