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Reindeer Games

Growing up gay and working-class, Sweetback's David Cerda knew just how Rudolph felt.



Reindeer Games

Local playwright David Cerda may have set out to lampoon a holiday tradition, but after three years his drag-queen parody of the animated TV special Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964) is becoming a tradition itself. Staged by the off-Loop company Sweetback Productions, Rudolph the Red-Hosed Reindeer previews this weekend at the Theatre Building, and Burl Ives would not be pleased. In Cerda's version of the story, Santa is a mean drunk, Mrs. Claus is a boozy floozy, the reindeer are cruel frat boys, and the sweet, slightly fey Rudolph learns the true meaning of Christmas when he discovers the joy of cross-dressing.

Growing up in Hammond in the late 60s, Cerda knew how it felt to be out of step. The son of a steelworker, he was more artistic than athletic. "I was a failure in Little League," he recalls. "I joined to please my dad, but I was so bad even he said, 'No, you don't have to play.' I was one of the kids people knew were gay. I did my best to fit in, and a lot of people didn't care. But it would take just one or two assholes who would say something or mock me, and people had to laugh and support them. People would try to pick fights with me, make me fight in front of my little brothers and sisters. That was the most demoralizing, degrading thing to happen, especially if you're the older brother, and your little brothers and sisters watch you get beaten. Kids are mean, really mean. I still shudder when I see a group of them walking down the street."

At 12, Cerda discovered alcohol. "When you feel bad inside and partying makes you feel good, partying becomes your number one priority." He managed to maintain a B average in high school, but before long his studies began to sink into a mire of drink and low self-esteem. "I went to Purdue Calumet campus for a year and signed up for the theater program, but I never went to class."

He began hanging out at Kelly's Our Way, a gay bar in Calumet City, where he met a drag queen called Tamara. "She saw me and said, 'Girl, I want to paint your face.' I barely knew her. But I said yes." Tamara taught him how to dress and make himself up, but he was more interested in expressing himself than in passing for a woman. He began performing at Kelly's on Sunday nights, and even among the drag queens he loved to shake things up: while others sang tunes by Donna Summer or the Pointer Sisters, Cerda performed punk-rock numbers dressed as Nina Hagen or Deborah Harry.

The next ten years were a blur. Cerda moved to Chicago and worked at a series of bars and clubs: the Orbit Room, the Paradise Club, even a stint at Limelight, where he supplemented his earnings as a barback by performing as Nina Hagen in one of the cages. "We would just lip-synch to the songs and people would watch. I kinda liked that. I thought it was fun. I only did it for three months, though, because I got in trouble for being drunk on the job."

Eventually his lifestyle caught up with him. "My body started to give out. I was just in my early 30s, and I kept thinking, God, some people can drink and drink and drink themselves to death until their 60s. But I just couldn't. I was physically, mentally, and spiritually burnt out." He felt so terrible he decided he must have AIDS. He scheduled an appointment with a doctor, explained his symptoms, and was tested for HIV. "I came back for the results and he said, 'You're negative. Now, do you want to address your drinking?' It was very weird--I hadn't said a thing about my drinking. But I'm sure I smelt like a brewery." As it turned out, he'd chosen a doctor who specialized in substance abuse.

After two decades on the bottle Cerda quit drinking and joined Alcoholics Anonymous, and he hasn't had a drink in seven years. Being sober was exciting: he began to write and penned a campy comedy for his AA group called The Twelve Stepford Wives. He auditioned for Sweetback Productions, which was casting an adaptation of the John Waters comedy Female Trouble, and won a small part as a hairdresser. The critics trashed the show, but it ran for eight months.

During the run Cerda rewrote his scene, extending it so the company would have more time to prepare for the next one, and Sweetback cofounder Kelly Anchors was so impressed that she urged him to write a show for the company. Superpussyvixen, Go Faster! Kill!, his affectionate parody of Russ Meyer's sexploitation flicks, opened in December 1997 at the National Pastime Theater before Sweetback moved the show to its new home, the SweetCorn Playhouse in Andersonville. Like Female Trouble, it drew bad reviews and large audiences, and Cerda followed it with Scarrie–The Musical in June 1998 and Joan Crawford Goes to Hell in April 1999. Rudolph was written in 1997, when the company began following its holiday show, Screw Xmas, with staged readings of works in progress, and it was so well received that Sweetback mounted a full production the following year.

Cerda isn't surprised by the show's continued success. "It was such a popular TV special," he says. "It has a good message, and it fits the needs of a lot of people I know--people who felt like misfits but really had a place in the world."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dorothy Perry.

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