What is a gay play? These three very different plays in the first week of the new Rave Theater Festival could all arguably fit the label, but it would mean stretching the definition beyond the normal assumptions.
“Stormy Weather” has nothing to do with the 1943 Lena Horne movie of the same name, but it does borrow from Gilligan’s Island (a storm traps the characters on an island, in this case Fire Island) and Boys in the Band (a group of gay men gather for a birthday party), and Naked Boys Singing (there’s nudity, although much less of it and very little singing) — as well as from any number of forgettable peekaboo gay plays that were not as funny or clever or even as sexy as they pretended to be, and in which the acting seemed beside the point.
Tim and Mark, who are both in their 40s, were long-time lovers who recently split up. Tim is in their house in the Pines on Fire Island alone with their teenage daughter Tina, when a storm causes Mark’s yacht to crash, and forces him to take refuge in the house, leading to a series of shouting matches between Tim and Mark which I guess were supposed to be amusing. During the course of the play, we also meet:
Michel, Tim’s houseboy, who spends the entire time shirtless.
Jake, a deckhand on the yacht, who also spends the entire time shirtless.
Bobby, Tim’s new 22-year-old boyfriend (it’s his birthday), who spends some of his time shirtless and pants-less.
Harold, Mark’s new (age appropriate) boyfriend, who spends some of his time shirtless. “I’m Harry,” he says at one point to Bobby. “I can see that,” Bobby says, looking at his hairy chest.
Harrison, Harold’s straight teenage son, arrives on stage shirtless and pants-less, stared at by Tina. Harrison and Tina instantly become an item.
Over the course of “Stormy Weather,” we learn of all sorts of cross connections – Harold is also Tim’s ex-boss, and Mark is Bobby’s therapist – while several characters disengage from their current partners and re-engage with others. I disengaged from it all.
Stormy Weather remaining showtimes: August 15, 20, 22, 25
Ni Mi Madre
Arturo Luis Soria III comes onto stage wearing only a pair of underpants, and puts on an elegant white dress, becoming Bete (sounds like Bet-chi) whose first words are: “I love Madonna.Let me tell you if it were another life baby I could’ve been Madonna.” And we’re launched into what initially seems like a drag queen’s stand-up comic routine impersonating an over-the-top would-be diva. She drinks too much, and complains about how her third husband “doesn’t take advantage of my body… When Christmas comes around I’m buying him a GPS system to my vagina .” Bete mentions the word “vagina” or its synonyms more times than any woman I’ve ever talked to.
But it soon becomes clear, when Bete starts talking about her gay son Arturo, that the playwright and performer has created a show about his mother.
That doesn’t make her any less outrageous. “Arturo is an entertainer, the actor, the attention seeker, the ADADGG-C-something—one of those diseases that the American people come up with so that way they don’t beat their kids.”
She calls her son “my heart.” She assigns all her children body parts. Her next-oldest daughter is “my appendix. They’re there but they’ve stopped serving a purpose and if they explode, you’re fucked.”
But amid the hilarity – and much of it is quite funny – there is a glimpse of issues of race, class, gender, sexual orientation and immigration that confront Bete and her son. Bete, the light-skinned daughter of a dark-skinned Brazilian, recalls how her mother shunned her. At one point, Soria portrays Bete imitating his father, whom she calls the Ecuadorian Communist: “There’s nothing wrong with gay people. I don’t have anything wrong with gay people. But no son of mine is going to be gay…people. “
At the end of “Ni Mi Madre,” Bete engages in a ritual seeking forgiveness from her mother, and from her children, and from herself.
The true spirit of Soria’s play — that it’s an odd, outrageous, but deeply felt homage — is summed by the words on the last page of the program: “Call your Mom.”
Ni Mi Madre remaining showtimes August 17,19, 22
I was excited to learn of a play that would dramatize the storied friendship between James Baldwin and Lorraine Hansberry. Both were renowned and influential writers who had great success at a young age, Baldwin with his first novel “Go Tell It on the Mountain” at age 29 , Hansberry with her first Broadway play “A Raisin in the Sun” at age 28. (Baldwin was also a Broadway playwright.) Six years apart in age, they shared a high profile as intellectuals and activists. Both were African-Americans, and both were queer, although Baldwin was more public about his sexuality.
“Sweet Lorraine” imagines James visiting Lorraine in her hospital room in 1965, a week before she died from cancer at the age of 34. They catch up, joke around, discuss politics, debate issues, argue. She admits to being angry with him for not visiting her sooner. They probe each other’s opinions, even about God.
Lorraine: Do you ever wish you still believed in God, Jimmy?
James: The only type of fiction I care for is the kind I write.
Lorraine: Well, I do. It keeps me up at night. I lay in this bed and ponder how simple life would be if there was someone, cosmical, in our corner….
They quote lines from other artists and intellectuals, and from each other’s work – which rings true, or at least is how we would like to imagine them. Inevitably in a play about two real-life historical figures, they drop in little biographical tidbits about one another that, in real life, two best friends would already know, but that theatergoers will certainly appreciate hearing. The maneuvering to get to this exposition is sometimes stilted, but often deftly done.
Lorraine:You sometimes sound just like my daddy.
James: So, he was a wise, incredibly handsome and debonair man?
Lorraine:He was, until good ‘ol American racism killed him too early.
The sweetest surprise in “Sweet Lorraine” is the presence of Valisia LeKae, five-time Broadway veteran, who was nominated for a Tony for her exquisite portrayal of Diana Ross in “Motown.” LeKae had to drop out of Motown after a diagnosis of ovarian cancer. Here she is more than five years later, portraying a woman dying of pancreatic cancer, which is brave and admirable and reason enough to be happy that this production exists. (She has a fine companion and sparring partner in Christopher Augustin as Baldwin.)
“Sweet Lorraine” is a terrific idea, and my hope is that the creative team continues to work on the play beyond its handful of performances at the Rave Festival.
There are what I consider some mistakes, such as the opening scene of Lorraine talking on the telephone with her ex-husband Robert. She is ranting about “The Drinking Gourd,” a television script about slavery that NBC commissioned from her (years before “Roots”!) and then declined to broadcast. The problem is not that this happened in 1960, five years before the play is supposed to take place (One expects this kind of fudging of time for dramatic purposes.) My problem is that Lorraine Hansberry is presented as foul-mouthed and soap-boxy. The first words out of her mouth are: “Fuck them! Fuck them all!” She calls the NBC executives “white devils” and compares herself to Anne Frank and Emmitt Till and Beethoven trying to create the Ninth Symphony.
It would shock me if any of the sentences in this opening telephone rant come verbatim from Lorraine Hansberry. Did she really curse so much? She was the daughter of a proper, proud affluent Chicago family; her mother was a schoolteacher. I’ve read all of her plays, and I can’t remember any of her characters being so loose with four-letter words. But, more importantly, the cursing and self-aggrandizement are symptomatic of a certain uncharacteristic lack of sophistication in the way that the Lorraine of the play expresses herself.
As I wrote when reviewing Imani Perry’s book, Looking For Lorraine, Hansberry was unquestionably a radical activist, so much so that the FBI had her under surveillance for years. But her impassioned sentences were also elegant, erudite, well-reasoned and witty. Could this really only have been when she put them down on paper? (Update: I’ve been told that, yes, she used harsh language when talking privately with her intimates — and I AM shocked. Since so few people know Hansberry at all, that opening scene still strikes me as the wrong way to introduce her to the audience.)
It’s worth noting that the James Baldwin of “Sweet Lorraine” brings up his homosexuality early and often, complete with campy references. But there is no mention of Lorraine Hansberry’s own queer identity – just a fleeting line about her wanting to see “the end to queer persecution.” It’s well established that Hansberry not only had a female lover but wrote for pioneering lesbian publications, albeit under a pseudonym – a fact that Baldwin surely knew. It is a subject that might well have come up in what could have been their last conversation together.
Sweet Lorraine remaining showtimes August 17, 19, 24