Nikki Kuhnhausen was a trans teen killed in a hate crime in Vancouver, WA in 2019. The new play, “American Girl,” is by playwright Mikki Gillette and based on her extensive interviews with Kuhnhausen’s family and friends. Gillette joins us to talk about the play, and this sadly very American story.
This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
COMPLETE - checked for spelling and pronouns
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. Nikki Kuhnhausen, a trans teen from Vancouver, Washington, was killed in a hate crime in 2019. Her murder became the subject of a fair amount of TV coverage and a true crime podcast. Now, the Portland playwright Mikki Gillette has written a play about Kuhnhausen’s last year of life with a focus on her tumultuous and dysfunctional family. The play, “American Girl,” is based on interviews Gillette did with Kuhnhausen’s family and friends. It’s a production of the Fuse Theater Ensemble. Performances are Thursday through Sunday until the end of April. Mikki Gillette, welcome back to Think Out Loud.
Mikki Gillette: Thanks, Dave, it’s great to be here.
Miller: Do you remember when you first heard about Nikki Kuhnhausen?
Gillette: Yeah, it was in December of 2019. She had gone missing in June, but I didn’t hear about it until her body was found in December and I saw it shared on Facebook.
Miller: At that point, what was the story that the public knew or was being told about Nikki?
Gillette: Let’s see… her mom was sharing the story. There had been a vigil about how she had gone missing and her body had been discovered. I don’t remember a lot of details about what had been going on in her life. It was more, just that it was shocking that a trans teen was killed in the Pacific Northwest. That’s something that hadn’t happened in many, many years.
Miller: Her death eventually got a lot of local and national attention and some of it was pretty sensational. I mentioned [in] my intro, the true crime podcast. There was a “48 Hours” documentary or special about her and about the eventual murder conviction. What did you want to add to her story as a playwright?
Gillette: I got involved with the Justice for Nikki task force, which was a group of volunteers, trans activists, and also parents of trans teens from the area who wanted to bring attention to Nikki’s case. [To] make sure that people knew that she was cared about and that they wanted her killer to be brought to justice. And like I said, I didn’t know a lot about Nikki’s life and, but when I met her mom, I let her know I was a playwright and asked if she’d be open to sharing her story. I don’t think I had any real intentions around it. I think I wanted to kind of memorialize it in the same way that other people were doing. [To] say, “This is something that happened and you know, we should pay attention to this.”
Transgender people know that trans people are killed for being trans. But I don’t know that other people necessarily know [that]. And I thought if a story could show that, you know, she was a real person, she was loved, she had hopes and dreams that maybe other people could empathize [with that] in a way they might not have before.
Miller: Did you ask Nikki’s mom for her permission to create this play? Or was it more that you were talking to her, and maybe, at some point you would turn those interviews and those conversations into a drama?
Gillette: No, I had asked from the very beginning. I wouldn’t have done it without her blessing.
Miller: Why do you think she said yes?
Gillette: I think she was really devastated by Nikki’s loss. She blamed herself in a lot of ways, which I don’t think she should have. I think there’s someone who is responsible for Nikki’s death and he’s in jail now. But I think she wanted Nikki to be remembered. She loved Nikki so much and she wanted other people to know that Nikki had been here. I think she found meaning in sharing the story and hoping to preserve Nikki’s memory.
Miller: What were those conversations like with her and other friends or family members of Nikki?
Gillette: They were kind of intense. Like I said, she was in a lot of grief, she seemed to be struggling to find meaning without Nikki being here. She shared really, really, honestly. I’ve been around twelve-step recovery before in my life, and Lisa was in recovery. And so I’d seen that kind of honesty before and I always feel like it’s an honor to be in the presence of someone who’s sharing in this really raw way, not trying to make themselves look good, but just really telling all the truth as best they can.
Miller: And the play, it dramatizes the Kuhnhausen’s family’s profound dysfunction in a way that as an audience member doesn’t seem to pull punches. You immerse us in the drug addiction and the sex work that preceded Nikki’s death. What was it like for you to immerse yourself in their world?
Gillette: My childhood was a little dark also. Not, I don’t think, on the same level as Nikki’s was, but, when I was younger, my dad was sort of self-employed and around quasi-legal activities and I would work with him in the summer when it was very age inappropriate. So there was a kind of darkness that I understood. But also I felt like I had this kind of task that felt like the right thing to do, which was to try to understand what had happened. How did Nikki end up in that car with that man? Which is not to blame anybody else other than Nikki’s killer, but what was going on in the family? What were the motivations that were happening that led Nicky down the path she went on?
Miller: You’ve mentioned a couple of times that Nikki’s mom, and we should say that since you struck up a friendship relationship with her, she passed away, as have other members of Nikki’s family. She had a real sense of guilt for what happened. What was behind that? What did she hold herself responsible for?
Gillette: I think there were a couple of things. I think the first thing she said to me was, “We were enmeshed. I was her friend. I wasn’t her parent.” Like that was like the very first thing that she told me about their relationship.
Miller: I have to say, that’s something that you dramatized, very effectively…
Gillette: Thank you.
Miller: There didn’t seem to be the clear parental lines of boundaries and safe, meaningful boundaries that could provide sort of guidelines, and consequences. That doesn’t show up in this play.
Gillette: Yeah. Well, a lot of it was kind of verbatim or based on, you know, trying to dramatize things that she had told me about that dynamic between them. I think the main thing was that she and Nikki’s stepfather had kicked Nikki out of the home when she was 16. They were both sober and going through recovery, and he was using drugs and. I think if the stepfather hadn’t been there, Lisa never would have made that choice. But she felt like she kind of chose the stepfather over Nikki, and I think that was the main decision that she held herself accountable for.
Miller: What does the title mean to you, “American Girl”?
Gillette: Yeah, the title just came to me. There’s two meanings I kind of put on it: one, I don’t think you usually see a story with a trans teen like Nikki in the center of it, and the idea that she’s the American girl in this play, I think is something new. But also when I was talking to Lisa and the other family members and friends, I kept thinking about how all of this had happened within five miles of where I live. But what was going on was so different from what I’ve experienced. These are all American problems or American dysfunctions, like you said, poverty, cyclical abuse and addiction issues. But it’s something we don’t always look at. So that was another meaning for me.
Miller: What was it like for you to focus on somebody else’s story for a play that you wrote?
Gillette: In some ways it was kind of liberating because I write a lot. And so I’m usually in my own imagination and I can get kind of tired of my preoccupations. And so to really immerse myself in someone else’s story was interesting. I didn’t know if I could do it. And I was just trying to kind of convey it as best I can
Miller: Do you know what Nikki’s mother or father or stepfather thought about the work in progress or the play as it is now?
Gillette: She was very encouraging of the play, all along and when I would share with her updates about its status she was excited about it. We had a reading last June, and she kind of got cold feet around it. She didn’t come to the reading. She wasn’t sure that she liked the way some things were displayed, which I totally understood. If I were her, I don’t think I could go see this play. Because it’s the most tragic thing that had ever happened to her. And like I said, she felt some guilt around it. The last time I talked to her, she said “I’m gonna come see it when it runs,” and I offered to come and read it with her together beforehand. And, yeah, it’s still hard to believe that she’s not here anymore.
Miller: We just have about 45 seconds left. But I’m curious what responses you’ve gotten so far that mean the most to you?
Gillette: Oh, wow. Yeah, I think kind of like the things that you were talking about. It’s not a play that you leave feeling joy about. But people really saying, “Oh, I feel like I understood their family the way you portrayed it. It really spoke to me.” So those kinds of responses.
Miller: Mikki Gillette. Thanks very much.
Gillette: My pleasure.
Miller: Mikki Gillette’s new play is called “American Girl.” It is at the Fuses Theater. Ensemble performances are Thursday through Sunday, until the end of April.
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