Some of the most moving and powerful moments in Will Graham and Abbi Jacobson’s lovingly-crafted 1940s-set series A League of Their Own, involve the gender nonconforming uncle Bertie played by Lea Robinson, and the relationship that builds between him and his niece Max (Chanté Adams). Bertie has long been estranged from his family when Max unexpectedly pays him a visit while she is in the process of accepting her own queer identity. One delicate and poignant scene sees Bertie give his niece a short hair cut, and later she tentatively arrives at a house party he’s throwing with his wife Gracie (Patrice Covington) that’s filled with defiant Black queer joy in a challenging and dangerous era for LGBTQ folks. These sequences are part of the show’s rich tapestry of stories from queer history that have far too often been hidden or erased. Read our ★★★★ review of the series.
With all eight episodes of A League of Their Own now streaming on Prime Video, The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann had an exclusive conversation with Lea Robinson about what taking on the role meant to them, whether they had an uncle Bertie figure in their own life, and what inspires them.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: How familiar were you with the original movie before you became involved in the series?
Lea Robinson: “I loved it, it was one of my favorite movies. I played women’s basketball back in the day at college level, so I loved the sportsmanship in the movie and everything about it. It’s one of those films that makes you feel really good. Of course, there were places where I was a little curious, like the scene when a Black woman throws the ball back. I wanted to know more about her, and what her life was like. When she goes home, what does it look like? Who is she in the world? So the fact that we get to delve into those things a little bit more in this show is pretty amazing. Also, being a student athlete when I was growing up, a lot of my teammates were lesbian identified, and I was as well, so I was curious about that angle too.”
Your character Bertie is obviously living in a different era to ours, around 80 years ago, but in what ways were you able to identify with him or how did his story resonate with your own?
“From the moment that my manager let me know about the audition I was really excited to be submitted for the role. I was already curious, then when I got to read the script I was just blown away. When I saw the description of Bertie and read Bertie’s language, those words, I fell in love with Bertie. I immediately resonated with Bertie, being a Black identified person myself and a trans identified person, nonbinary, I understood the path of walking in fear, walking in confidence, walking in our courage, all of it. The negotiations with family—whether I’ve experienced that in the same way or not—I understand how important family is, how important Black community is to my own identity, and when it’s a challenge to walk within those communities, it’s really hard.”
“I talked to my parents about their understanding of what it was like to be a person of color in that time, and not only a person of color, but someone who was nonbinary, queer, trans. I did a lot of that background research on what it was like to be nonconforming or nonbinary in that era, a historical look at trans identities, trans identities of colors specifically, from that era. I was also able to attach some of my own identities and experiences to it. I felt a deep sense of honor, that I was going to be able to be a part of telling a story that I hadn’t seen in this way before. It feels like a huge moment to be able to bring to light the Berties. So with all the research and all the meditation on the character, and learning how to walk in Bertie’s shoes, I knew it was in my heart. Bertie was a part of me and I was a part of Bertie.”
Stories of gender nonconforming people throughout history aren’t widely available or told, so to see Bertie’s story on a platform like Prime Video, available to millions of people in a show like this is pretty major isn’t it?
“It is really epic.”
What kind of research did you do?
“I picked up a couple of books on the rhetoric around trans identities and the fact that trans identities have always been here. I was also thinking about some of my own experiences, like sitting in a small town on the front porch with Black people and watching a gay person walk by, and what the response and reactions were. It was really a blessing to be able to play a role like this, because I was able to pull from so many personal experiences as well as resting on what was coming to me from the ancestors and thinking about the larger picture of this story. The writers and showrunners did a tremendous amount of research too, so there was a lot there about Bertie already and I got to build even more on to that character.”
Silas Howard was one of the directors who you worked with on the series, what was that like?
“I worked with a lot of great directors and Silas was amazing and so easygoing. He’s super collaborative. It was an honor to work with him and seeing the experience that he brought to that situation too. It was a lot of fun. We had an opportunity to chat beforehand about life and the value and importance of what we were doing with the series. Coming away from that I felt the heaviness—not in a bad way, in a great way—of what we were doing and the potential impact it was going to have. Everyone loves the original movie and they were telling a story that they could tell at that time, but we were getting to tell a little bit of a different story. Everyone believed so much in what we were doing.”
One of my favorite scenes in the series is the the house party that Bertie and his wife Gracie have, what was that like to be part of?
“The party was so beautiful. To walk in and see what they did with the place was incredible. It took me all the way back to my first queer party, the first time I walked into a space like that. I was like, there are a lot of people here, the music is spot on, people are dancing, holding each other’s hands and showing emotion towards each other in this space. To walk onto that set and see what they had created and to be a part of those scenes was so powerful, because these partygoers were doing this thing that was so hard to do during that time. We all have an understanding of the risk that was being taken to come into that place and to have some joy, so that was such a powerful scene to be a part of.”
“There was a lot of heavy stuff happening between Max and Bertie at that moment. Max is talking about her identity and who Max wants to be in the world and Bertie is holding that space and accepting that. So it’s such a beautiful scene from the ambiance that they created to the conversations that were happening. As well as that juxtaposition with the Peaches in the bar in Chicago. I cried just this week when I watched that scene. That party scene is in the context of these folks coming down from Detroit where they’ve been having a hard time and Bertie is determined to show them a good the time. Bertie and Gracie are creating that space for joy and family and community, and welcoming Max into that.”
Some of the challenges of those times for Black queer and gender nonconforming folks are acknowledged, but what did you make of the way that the series doesn’t dwell on that but focuses on joy instead?
“Those are conversations we had with the writers. We knew that this was a hard time and that we were going to talk about some hard stuff because it’s important. I want folks to walk away from seeing Bertie and learn something they maybe had no idea about or see an experience that they can resonate with that brings awareness, compassion and understanding. But we also want to talk about the joy, we want folks to be able to look at this and know that we can exist in both worlds, because oftentimes we do. We navigate the challenges and the hardships and we try to create and enjoy those moments of joy too. So a huge part of the conversation was, how do we make sure that we’re also showing that joy and love and that light? Folks having fun, walking in their truths and accepting each other and their chosen family. Sometimes I need that reminder too, that there’s joy here. We should talk about the joy as much as we talk about the challenges.”
The relationship between Bertie and Max is really beautiful and the scene where he cuts her hair is really poignant. Did you have an uncle Bertie in your own life, that kind of figure who made you feel accepted and that it was okay to forge your own path?
“Wow, that is a great question. I’m not sure if I had an uncle Bertie, but I had people in my life, in our family, my extended family too, who I was curious about and they were always really kind and loving to me. And there was a person in the neighborhood who I wondered about, thinking maybe they’re different like me, and they were always kind to me. So although I’m not sure that I had that particular figure in my life when I was young in the way that Max has Bertie, throughout my life I’ve had people who were really accepting of me and took time to connect. I think I had a couple of people who were watching over me like that.”
“I always I like to talk about my family. My parents watched the show and they’re so excited and so proud. My mom was so moved by the party and bar sequence. It can be challenging sometimes with family when we’re coming out, but we get to meet each other where we are. It hasn’t always been easy, but as an adult my parents are amazing, they’ve always supported and loved me regardless. They ask me my pronouns and make sure that they’re checking in with me on those things. They go to pride events and their little dog has a pride jacket on. They’re really there for me unconditionally. I know not everyone has that so I feel like it’s important to mention it because it’s a privilege when it comes to these things.”
Bertie looks so sharply dressed in the suits that he wears, which he makes himself, what were they like to wear and why are they such an important part of who he is?
“All of the costumes were beautiful and the attention to detail that was put into bringing that era to life was unbelievable. Our fittings lasted a few hours because we’d go through all of the outfits building who Bertie was. That was so powerful from the kerchief to the binding. It was all very intentional. When we went through that process I knew that this was going to be great. When Bertie walks into the room, Bertie really walks into the room, right! I loved every time I’d come to the trailer and put on an outfit. I was always really excited.”
“The power around clothing for me personally, being a trans and nonbinary person, my gender expression, my gender identity, is huge. So for Bertie to be able to create these beautiful clothes himself and walk in the world expressing himself is just so unbelievably powerful. He wears these creations with so much pride. It’s testimony to that joy of walking on our paths and doing it with courage. We can’t always do that, but when we can see someone who does, it’s really powerful. Bertie creates that suit for Max, sharing himself with her and then Max has the courage to be like, ‘I want to wear it this way’. And Bertie is like, ‘All right’. There’s so much that’s happening there.”
While Max wears the suit the way she wants to, Abbi Jacobson’s character Carson similarly feels that she doesn’t fit either the butch or femme identities that she encountered at the queer bar.
“Right, and that’s an interesting conversation. There are so many different ways to exist in this community and a lot of times we feel like we have to be this way or that way otherwise we don’t fit. I love the conversation about having to create their own category, that feeling of, ‘I don’t fit into this or that, where can I explore and figure that out where I do fit?’ I love Max’s line, ‘No, let’s stay away from food!’ It’s the best thing ever. When Abbi’s characters says, maybe we can call it something Pizza related?'”
When you look at LGBTQ+ culture and people in the community, who or what gives you inspiration?
“The Berties who didn’t have a voice. The folks in this era, or any place, who are walking through their lives and they don’t have a voice, they’re not able to be seen or be heard, that’s who inspires me. Also, our young people inspire me with their courage to push back and to ask questions. Finally, the trans women, specifically trans women of color, that we’ve lost to violence. It’s these people, it’s these things, it’s these moments that really inspire me and encourage me to do this work and to be visible and to really make sure that our voices are heard, and those voices who can’t be heard, are also heard through us. It’s our responsibly to make sure that we keep having those conversations.”
By James Kleinmann
All eight episodes of A League of Their Own are streaming now on Prime Video.