The 2019 murder of Nikki Kuhnhausen rocked our region's queer community, with aftershocks still felt to this day. The death of this 17-year-old trans girl cut through Portland's progressive blue bubble and laid bare the violence of transphobia that is still endemic here.
Kuhnhausen’s death cut all the more deeply for the quick familiarity of her face. Like any average American girl, she had an Instagram and TikTok full of makeup shots and composed selfies. As those ubiquitous images filled the news, they made her murder feel personal, as if we all lost someone we knew.
American Girl, written by playwright Mikki Gillette and performed by Fuse Theater Ensemble, declares from the start that it will tell a different story from the one we know. Staged in the round—the set consists of simple pieces of living room furniture—the work pushes past the teen’s selfies and drops us into her close-up, private life.
Gillette sourced the material for American Girl from deep conversations with Kuhnhausen’s mother, Lisa Woods. She first met Woods as a member of the Justice for Nikki Task Force, a team that advocated for a Washington State bill barring the LGBTQ+ panic defense. That bill, cited as the Nikki Kuhnhausen Act, became a law in March 2020. A bill in Oregon outlawed the LGBTQ+ panic defense in May 2021.
Through that advocacy, Gillette began having conversations with Woods about her daughter's life and contemplating a future play to be shared with the public. The result of that relationship is American Girl, an adapted story of Nikki Kuhnhausen, her parents, and several composite characters. The composites—Arthur, Stephanie, and Lynette—are not based on specific individuals, but were created to illustrate incidents and circumstances which the family related to Gillette.
In American Girl, we find Nikki (Naomi A. Jackson) bouncing between temporary homes. Her mother Lisa (Maia McCarthy), father Kane (Peter Schuyler), and brother Arthur (Milo Vuksinich) all love Nikki and want to protect her, but each is lost in their own world of drugs, trap houses, and trouble. [Trap house is slang for a home where people buy and use drugs. -eds]
Nikki’s family members are quick to call each other out for failing her, but also unable to face their own limitations, leaving the girl to play peacemaker. As she navigates these conflicts, we see her continually attempt to manifest her family not as they are but as she wishes they could be. Into this tornado comes trap house runner Stephanie (Naiya Amilcar) whose understated calm promises grounding for Nikki, only to set her up for larger falls. Kane’s new girlfriend Lynette (Jenny Tien) blurs between stepmother and fellow lost child.
Jackson’s standout performance drives American Girl, showing Nikki constantly wavering between vulnerability, devotion, and bravado. “I guess I’m different because I’m bulletproof,” Nikki quips late in the play, but Jackson's portrayal of her unsteady footing has already shown us how untrue those words are.
Nikki’s transness, so significant in her death, barely factors into the more immediate struggles she faces, as she is forced into caretaker roles she should never have had to hold.
Lisa Wood's own passing in late 2022, along with the previous passing of Nikki’s father Kane Kuhnhausen and her stepfather Vince Woods, underlines the tragedy driving the play. Woods' struggle with the death of her daughter and with her attempts to share her daughter’s memory aches throughout.
The true strength of the production is the complexity of the family as written by Gillette and performed by McCarthy, Schuyler, and Vuksinich. Each actor brings depth and care to their respective characters, even in their failings and failures. In this unflinching portrayal, Lisa hardly spares herself, seeing only too late how her own failures to hold Nikki played into her loss.
“I just want her back,” she says, in a particularly powerful moment, and the sense of invocation is heartbreaking. The wish is impossible to fulfill, but the real life Woods shared the depth of it, baring the real girl her family mourned. American Girl does necessary work inviting us in.
American Girl plays through Sun April 30 at the Back Door Theater (located in the back of the Common Grounds Coffeehouse) 4319 SE Hawthorne, tickets are name your own price, and should be reserved in advance, 18+