On a cold, rainy night in Anytown, USA, a woman approaches a train station.
Clutching a black garbage bag in one hand, she picks up a phone with the other and approaches the screen, seemingly to speak directly to viewers.
“Hello? I’m Jordan. … I need help.”
So begins the first episode of “Jordan’s River,” a new web series created and filmed in Lancaster with a red carpet premiere at Zoetropolis Cinema Stillhouse on Saturday. The series is the brainchild of Perseus and Lo Gross, a married couple who also make music locally under the name Swimgood. “Jordan’s River” is the Gross’ first narrative feature series, and within its 23-minute each, four-episode runtime, it covers topics as big and wide-ranging as religion, COVID-19 and transphobia.
The web series stars former Lancaster city resident and current Philadelphian Diamond Anthony as Jordan, a trans woman in a small town who hopes to use music as a way out of an abusive and uncaring household under her father, Pastor Rob, played by Jason Evora, of York. The main cast is rounded out by Andrew Dixon of Lancaster as Deacon Smith, Nalema Ross of Allentown as Monique, and Tymira Pearson (also known as Suge) of Lancaster as Nicki.
“I think that it’s a beautiful story to be told,” Anthony says. “I think there needs to be more trans representation in media, and I think when we tell stories that are very raw and very real, people will understand us a little bit better.”
The series will stream on the YouTube app and website for free at the end of February on the Swimgood channel at lanc.news/swimgood.
‘Where are they going to go?’
For Perseus Gross, “Jordan’s River” was a learning process from beginning to an ending that has not yet materialized.
Gross, realizing early in the pandemic that cinematographers for Swimgood’s music videos were hard to find, bought a camera and began filming small vignettes. What started with filming things around the house and quick walks around the city grew into a passion. In mid-2021, Gross found himself thinking about the disconnect between the trans community and social services rendered through local shelters.
“Where are they going to go?” Gross says, of his thoughts during the emergency shelter-in-place orders of 2020. “Where are the people who are marginalized in this city and cities across the United States going to go in this particular moment because they can’t shelter in place? From that, [I] recalled other experiences where I’ve heard of people being turned away for their sexual orientation.”
With an idea in place and an accepted application to the Lancaster Equity Fund for a $5,000 grant, Gross, 36, approached his wife, 35, and got to work. The Lancaster County Community Foundation created the equity council and fund in 2021 to help local people of color and immigrant artists in Lancaster County. In their musical partnership, Perseus describes himself as a visual person, whereas Lo is more lyrical. Together, the Grosses expanded the idea into an early version of what would become “Jordan’s River.”
There were learning moments. Gross initially kept his scope small, searching not far beyond his inner circle for a non-trans actor to play Jordan. Gross describes his friends “gracefully” telling him to do more research on the history of trans representation in pop culture, leading him to cast someone that wasn’t just wearing a “trans uniform.”
“I’m a straight Black dude who has been married to a woman for 15 years, so what do I know about the struggles of that community?” Gross says. “I led with, ‘Hey, I’ve never been in your shoes, but I’ve been the person on the other side who has denied — because of the institution or because of regulations — who has denied individuals, and I’ve seen it firsthand.’ That broke my heart, so I wanted to do whatever I could to create more conversation around how this (representation) is happening and how often it happens. They trusted me with the story, and I’m grateful for that.”
Upon arrival at the first of what would be a long two days of shooting, Gross says that the team relied heavily on trust — the cast trusting a first-time director, a star trusting that they would receive accurate representation and a the first-time director trusting a crew doing jobs of which he didn’t know the full scope (“At the beginning, we didn’t even know what some of those positions were called, if I’m being honest,” Gross says with a laugh).
The perspective, the premiere
Gross says that his intent was to make the city look like any other small city in the United States, though Lancaster residents will instantly recognize shooting locations including Binns Park and the Queen Street Station.
Despite the tight filming turnaround, some stylistic details were figured out on the fly. Take, for instance a pivotal scene in the third episode in which Jordan arrives at a woman’s shelter, looking for food and a place to stay. From Jordan’s perspective as a woman looking for shelter, her wig is present. With a quick cut to the view of the social services worker who denies Jordan placement at the shelter, Jordan is bald.
“I think when Perseus brought up the idea, I was like, this is a really great concept because, for a lot of people that have transphobic beliefs, they don’t see that person’s full self,” Anthony says. “They’ll see it in a way that is very negative. I think that was a very smart move and a creative way to put that perspective into the story.”
The Zoetropolis premiere of “Jordan’s River” will also feature a discussion and musical performances interspersed with each episode, including Anthony performing songs from her new album, “Tears of a Broken Heart,” which comes out the day before the premiere. Gross says that the release plan for the web series is to premiere it at a few small venues before releasing it online at the end of February.
With writing for a second and final season underway, both Anthony and Gross say they are ready to return, as long as the reception and future funds line up. For Anthony, yes, “Jordan” is a fictional character in a web series, but also one with a lot of similarities to real-life struggles.
“When I was going through my self-journey discovering who I was as a trans individual, I definitely had struggles with my family and I still do to this day,” Anthony says. “There’s still family members who don’t chose to understand me or understand my community, the person that I am. And that’s OK — however, that’s why it’s important for us to tell stories like this because, at the end of the day, these are real life things that people go through.”
What: “Jordan’s River” web series premiere (full release will be online at the end of February).
Where: Zoetropolis Cinema Stillhouse, 112 N. Water St., Lancaster.
When: 6:30 p.m. Saturday.
More info: Zoetropolis.com.
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