DRAG QUEENS ON TRIAL
In Southern Ladies and Gentlemen Florence King observes, "Great love can lie between Southern women. In a region drenched in sexual tension, where flirting is an ingrained habit . . . intrasexual awareness is unavoidable. Add to this the Southern woman's proneness to physical affection, and there is bound to be a sensual component in many female friendships."
Phoebe Satterfield and Rosetta Washington have such a friendship. The bond between them begins one day in 1930, when Phoebe delivers Rosetta's stillborn baby, and remains unbroken for 39 years. It is not a selfishly exclusive love, however; the two women share a house with Phoebe's shy brother Leland, and the three eventually come to love one another as indissolubly as blood kin. They have their disagreements, of course. Phoebe frequently exhibits characteristics of an overcontrolling mother, Rosetta occasionally insists on being allowed autonomy, and Leland is sometimes forced to remind both females of his existence as a family member. The tie that binds these three together endures, however, even through the unrest of the 50s and the civil rights movement, when both elderly women march side by side.
Rebecca Ranson's Secrets is being produced as part of Bailiwick Repertory's gay and lesbian series, but its two female protagonists are not necessarily lesbians. Theirs is a highly personalized relationship that transcends the facile label of "close friends" (as in "just close friends") and the serial monogamy that passes for modern "lesbian lifestyle." (The production contains some schoolgirl-league cuddling and kissing, but nothing to make the censors twitch.) If the love in this play doesn't speak its name, it's because there's no name inclusive enough. When Phoebe and Rosetta say "I love you" to one another--for that matter, when Leland says the same words to both of them--they are not talking about going steady or about jumping anybody's bones, but something far more complex.
The trials of Phoebe and Rosetta are less the result of their affection for one another than the result of the fact that Phoebe is white and Rosetta is black--though even this doesn't become a real issue until 1952, when a burning cross is left on the front lawn. Ranson doesn't succeed as well in tracing the political and racial line of her story, portraying Rosetta as too much the passive victim protected by the parental Phoebe. The same is true of the house-raising episode, when Phoebe is determined to work alongside the carpenters instead of helping prepare lunch for them as Rosetta suggests. Rosetta is presented by Ranson as the more sexually aggressive in the beginning--she is the one who initiates the first kiss--but Phoebe is portrayed as something of a bully who charges into things recklessly, while Rosetta and Leland implore her to be less headstrong. Phoebe's protest that she doesn't see why she can't help build the house or rush outside to challenge the entire Ku Klux Klan, when she's socially aware enough to see perfectly why not, diminish her as an adult. The status quo is not always something to be heeded, but it is always something to be considered.
Bailiwick's production of this material is well researched and carefully thought out. Susan Attea's sets and costumes in particular place us so precisely in time and place that the characters actually appear to age without any change in their makeup. Sound designer Rick Netter's score reinforces the epic dimensions of the play, and dialect coach Cindy O'Brien has done her homework in distinguishing between Phoebe's brisk upland North Carolina accents and the softer coastal drawl of the Baltimore-born Rosetta. Under the direction of L.M. Attea, Emily Brown, Daniel Lee, and Lauren Love deliver credible and evenly paced performances.
Ranson's script could do with some more fine-tuning: the characters too frequently tell rather than show what they think or feel--a flaw that makes it easy for actors to simply recite lines while leaving their faces blank. And we know, the minute we hear Phoebe say to Rosetta, "I'll hold you so tight that nothing can happen to you," that white racists will attack in the very next scene. Though Secrets resembles an outline for a play more than a finished work, Ranson nonetheless has attempted to take her characters far beyond the generic archetypes and create complex individualized human beings--and that attempt is to be applauded and encouraged enthusiastically.
In contrast, Canadian playwright Sky Gilbert's Drag Queens on Trial makes no claim to be anything but agitprop. Though the title would seem to indicate another hitchhiker on the Vampire Lesbians of Sodom bandwagon, this is a serious and impassioned plea for tolerance--and the most entertaining editorial since the days of guerrilla theater.
The plot is simple and episodic. Each of three transvestites--Marlene Delorme, Judy Goose, and Lana Lust--enacts in turn a scene in which she stands trial for the "crime" of being a drag queen. The other two actors play the roles of the prosecuting attorney and the surprise witness. In between the court sessions we see the three men in their dressing room, changing costumes and chatting among themselves until the stage manager's voice summons them to the stage/courtroom.
In the first trial Delorme's claim to having been born blond (she's played by a black actor) is repudiated by the testimony of a hairdresser who administered the first peroxide and who also exposes Delorme as male. Declared guilty, Delorme recalls her isolated childhood, when her only role model was the ballerina in the film clip that accompanied a television sign-off.
At her trial, Judy Goose claims to have become a drag queen at the insistence of a producer who would hire her only if she did. But with the assistance of her former school counselor, who declares Goose to have been a "chronic misfit," the prosecuting attorney demonstrates that Goose has fabricated her life story from the plot of the film Madame X and that she is male. Judy Goose steps down in disgrace.
So far, the backstage banter has been the usual combination of good- natured cattiness, gossip, and griping about minor occupational hazards--vintage cosmetics containing radium, gay club owners who bar cross dressers. But during the break that precedes Lust's trial, we learn that she may have AIDS and is afraid to call the doctor to find out.
She receives the test results in the course of her trial, when the surprise witness turns out to be a doctor-preacher who chastises her not only for her manner of dress but also for all the actions that have brought her to imminent death. Lust, inspired by the innocent face of a youth sitting in the courtroom, decides that for the sake of all those who will live after her she will triumph over death by dying unrepentant. "I have made choices many people would not agree with," she declares. "But I followed my heart. . . . I have not been afraid to look inside myself, to live on the edge of morality, society, of the world itself, and if I must die for it, so be it. . . . It was worth it!"
Drag Queens on Trial has its serious sides, but it is not merely a jeremiad, nor is it a polemic of familiar views. The irreverent humor of the three queens' offstage palaver mitigates the somberness of Gilbert's message (during a discussion of the hygienic properties of condoms, for example, Delorme says, "And you can accessorize! Those things come in all colors and patterns to match anything"). Even the finale leaves us on an upbeat note: "To condemn these men is to condemn everything brave, alive, and dangerous," announce the three protagonists, who then proceed to dance and lip-synch their way through Judy Garland's "Get Happy."
Whatever one's views on the issues debated in Drag Queens on Trial (I have problems with Gilbert's glorification of martyrdom--even John Rechy dropped that homosexual-as-outlaw-antihero line long ago), there is no denying the talent and skill reflected in Bailiwick's production. As the ingenuous Goose, Michael Thomas has a sense of comic timing that's a study in unhurried poise (when Goose claims to have been born in a dogsled in the Yukon, the attorney snaps, "I find that hard to believe!" After a long deadpan stare, Goose replies, "So?"). As the statuesque Delorme, Michael Shepperd displays gams hosiery models would kill for, and Scott Swenson (who looks uncannily like David Bowie) embodies grace under pressure as the heroic Lust. All three actors are also successful in their alternative roles as patriarchal bullies and mean-spirited executioners. J. Kevin Draves's costumes are carefully chosen and flawlessly assembled with keen attention to detail (the hairdresser's bell-bottoms, for example, are ever so slightly too short). And sound designer Shea Ako has strung together a collection of entr'acte music that could be made into an album entitled "The Female Impersonator's Repertoire," including Bette Midler singing Dylan's "Just Like a Woman" and Lotte Lenya doing Weill's "Surabaya-Johnny."
The production of this play is far better than the script, which is as flimsy as one-dollar panty hose. A hazard of plays written for specific audiences is that ax grinding sometimes takes precedence over aesthetics in the mind of the author, and subject matter over professional quality in the minds of play-selection committees. Bailiwick is to be commended nonetheless for promoting playwrights whose works are targeted to predominantly gay audiences, a strategy that can only lead to plays that speak to audiences straight and gay.