On Thursday, Oct. 13, Sara Davis Buechner kicked off the Jungle Theater‘s 32nd season with a moving performance of her one-woman show “Of Pigs & Pianos.” The 80-minute show, which premiered at the Theater Lab in Manhattan last year, is part piano recital and part confessional. Beginning with her childhood identifying as a young boy and growing up in Baltimore, and moving on to her struggles with sexuality, gender, and mental health, the story explores Buechner’s incredible life. Her talent took her to Juilliard, the Kennedy Center, and Carnegie Hall, to name a few of many accomplishments that made her one of the best-known classical pianists in America.
The title is a reference to Buechner’s childhood dream of being a pianist and a pig farmer, foreshadowing her passion for “rooting around in the muck for truffles,” those mucky truffles being the entirety of the extensive music collection of the Juilliard library, which Buechner diligently worked through during her school days. Buechner’s unique ability to breathe life into classical piano pieces contributed to her international success. Indeed, to hear—and even watch—Buechner play piano is exciting. Her performance style varies from piece to piece. Sometimes, she gingerly touches the keys, and other times she seems to play with her whole body, emphasizing the swells of the music with a toss of her bright white hair. (It was so beautiful, I cried twice.) You’ll recognize famous pieces from Mozart and Chopin and hear Buechner’s own compositions, including a lullaby she wrote for her neighbor’s daughters while living in the Bronx.
Prior to her transition in the mid-’90s, Buechner was the Gold Medalist of the 1984 Gina Bachauer International Piano Competition, and a Bronze Medalist in the 1986 Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition in Moscow. Post-transition, however, Buechner struggled to find teaching jobs or performance opportunities, until finally landing in Canada, which she describes as “much more progressive than the United States” back then.
Her second act as an openly female-presenting pianist is fascinating, taking her across the provinces of Canada all the way to the other side of the world, to Japan. As time wore on, Buechner found plenty of success living as her truest self, receiving the Eleanor Roosevelt Award of Brandeis University, becoming a member of the National Museum of Women in the Arts, and landing a teaching position at Temple University.
“Of Pigs & Pianos” mentions all these accolades, but the emotional meat of the story comes from anecdotes about things like the Mozart-esque concert jacket from her childhood, first crushes and bad dates, her love for Spanish piano music, and a series of dubious encounters with psychiatrists and therapists. Some of these descriptions involve baffling, if not disturbing, accounts of medical malpractice, which are masterfully handled thanks to Buechner’s grim sense of humor and earnest delivery. The audience alternated between laughter and solemn silence as Buechner painted a picture of the ironies, triumphs, and tribulations of being a world-famous transgender classical pianist before the turn of the century. How’s that for groundbreaking work?
Buechner, who transitioned in the late 90s, has been around the block when it comes to gender-based oppression and the early, uncertain days of transgender healthcare. She doesn’t focus on dramatic sweeping statements about politics or gender identity, yet Buechner also doesn’t shy away from the darker moments in her life when she lost jobs, friends, and family as she walked the road to a life lived openly as herself. She says she simply didn’t care about the losses, because the joy of finally being herself was so freeing. Buechner also says she does feel that times are changing for transgender performers in classical music, and she’s honored to be an activist, leader, and mentor for the next generation.
There’s something special and moving about watching a story performed not only by its writer, but by someone who really lived it. This layer of authenticity, plus Buechner’s brilliant writing, her ability to connect with the audience, and her clear love and mastery of the piano, makes for a truly unique theatrical experience. Buechner has officially added “playwright” and “actress,” alongside “accomplished pianist” and “composer,” to her already-packed resume. I left the auditorium smiling and thinking, “Wow, what a talent and what a life.”
“Of Pigs & Pianos” will be performed from Oct. 13 to Oct. 16 at the Jungle Theater. For tickets, click here.