Philly Fringe performer imagines eating her twin sister: ‘It gave me a lot to digest’

John Jarboe invents “Rose,” a genderqueer performance about her twin sister who vanished in utero.

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John Jarboe performing

John Jarboe performing “Rose” at FringeArts.(Christopher Ash)

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John Jarboe, the founder and director of the Bearded Ladies Cabaret in Philadelphia, came out as trans a few years ago.

In 2018, she dutifully told her Aunt Margo.

“I said, ‘I’m using she/her pronouns.’ My aunt said, ‘Oh, of course you are,’” Jarboe recalled. “’You know, you had a twin sister in the womb. You ate her. That’s why you are the way you are.’”

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Jarboe had no idea she had had a twin in utero, or that she “ate” her sibling. As surprising as that news was, she was also taken aback by her aunt’s choice of words.

“There was a moment where I was almost going to be defensive: ‘Why are you saying that messed up thing?’” she said. “But it was just so bizarre that I couldn’t even respond in that way.”

To be clear, Jarboe did not eat her sister. It is not uncommon for a twin gestation to result in one of the fetuses dying and its cells become reabsorbed. According to the American Pregnancy Association, about a quarter of all multifetal pregnancies result in a vanished twin.

What stuck with Jarboe was the way her aunt described it.

“For it to be described as a kind of cannibalism that happens in the womb was pretty odd,” she said. “And, actually, kind of a gift.”

Jarboe picked up that gift and ran with it.

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John Jarboe seated in an audience seat at FringeArts
John Jarboe at FringeArts. (Peter Crimmins/WHYY)

The performance piece “Rose: You Are Who You Eat,” now premiering at the 2023 Fringe Festival is a multimedia performance with original songs, projections, and banter about Jarboe and her imagined doppelganger. It muses on the fictional possibility that Jarboe had actually eaten her sister, and now that sister is gnawing her way back out into the world.

“I knew that had I been assigned female at birth, I would have been called Rose. I just did not know I ate Rose,” Jarboe said. “As I say in the show, it gave me a lot to digest.”

“Rose” has taken various forms over the last few years. Birthed during the pandemic, Jarboe first created “Rose” as an online concept, consisting of a suite of streaming short musical films. She then created a live concert version of those films, which was performed at the Guggenheim in New York and at CulturalDC in Washington, D.C.

The performance opening this week in Philadelphia is an expanded theatrical version of the concept, which Jarboe describes as a play with music.

“‘Rose: You Are Who You Eat’ is a musical healing ritual for queer folks,” she said. “It intersects with a concert, a dark comedy about cannibalism and gender, and a sing-along.”

John Jarboe performing "Rose" at Cultural DC 2
John Jarboe performing an earlier version of Rose at CulturalDC, in April 2022.(Tony Hitchock)

Jarboe has been a prolific creator of drag performances on a wide range of topics, from climate change to French historical farce to the racism of Walt Whitman. She said “Rose” is the most personal show she has presented. In it, Jarboe projects old family photographs of herself as a child, then identifying as male, to chronicle her struggles with gender identity.

“You look at a photo of yourself when you’re a kid in a hockey uniform, that can be really disquieting,” she said. “It can be really painful to see it displayed on your parents wall because you’re, like, ‘That’s how you saw me, not how I saw myself.’”

In “Rose,” Jarboe imagines that while she was presenting as a boy, her sister Rose was living the carefree life she wanted.

“When I was eight and playing hockey, Rose was off in Vienna working in a coffee shop.” Jarboe said. “She was flirting with all the men that came in the coffee shop.”

Jarboe designed the show for genderqueer people and their parents, with entry points for others. She sees “Rose” as a kind of mythological creation story.

“It’s been such a great container for a lot of feelings. The loneliness I had, and gender confusion,” she said. “This idea of missing someone that was there that I didn’t know, which is maybe myself or this twin Rose, felt very accurate to me, emotionally. When that was told to me there was some part of me that was, like, ‘Oh!’ Something dropped.”

As crass as her original comment may have been, Jarboe is grateful for her Aunt Margo.

“Sometimes people tell you who you are, and you’re, like, ‘Oh, yeah, maybe there’s something about that that makes sense,” she said.

“Rose: You Are Who You Eat” will be performed at FringeArts through Saturday, Sept. 23. Next spring, another version of the twin concept will open at the Fabric Workshop and Museum as a room installation.

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