Joanna KrakowskaQueer – bourgeois entertainment?
New York’s Joe’s Pub is a special place. An in-between place, a space of liminality. Not so off anymore, but not really mainstream yet; not avant-garde anymore, but not commercial either; already an entertainment type of a place, but, thankfully, still a thought-provoking one as well.
The open-ended status of this cabaret stage is very well defined by its admission fees: tickets are not as expensive as for a typical entertainment theatre performance – within the limits of $25 – but the principle is that during the show one should spend almost the same amount on the so-called refreshments… Joe’s Pub is located at The Public Theater where it serves as fig leaf to cover the increasingly bourgeois and commercial side of the venue, which was founded as an institution with the mission of discussing topical and complex social issues. Thus at Joe’s Pub one can meet alternative musicians and queer performers – still uncorrupted by commerce, still unyielding to the popular tastes.
Last year Justin Vivian Bond performed there with great success. Justin Vivian Bond is known as the author of “Tango. My Childhood. Backwards and in High Heels”, a book translated into Polish by Jacek Poniedziałek, or the movie “Shortbus”, which became the basis for the second part of “Kabaret Warszawski” (Warsaw Cabaret) by Krzysztof Warlikowski. At Joe’s Pub, Bond performs his own songs, leaving the audience with the impression of perfection, ideal of beauty and elegance. Her transgender identity eludes the disturbing nature of the “queer” category, but at the same time, to the audience’s delight, it emancipates itself, takes over the viewers’ prejudices (if there have been any left) and their fantasies (if they tend to have such).
Penny Arcade with her new repertoire was another artist to appear on the stage of Joe’s Pub in June 2014. Penny is quite different in terms of her expression and aesthetics – she is as agile as a cat, provocatively clad in a short, pink, cinched-waist dress. A red-haired, 64-year-old artist who is as outspoken as she is sassy. And so queer that no one would dare to stand in her way with their own prejudices, although she herself has plenty of these. She fights the lesbians who believe that bisexuals are those who “do not try hard enough” and the gays who cultivate bourgeois values. She criticises the young for their opportunism and lack of imagination. She dislikes academic queer for espousing political correctness. For her, gentrification is what kills a city fastest. All this and much more is actually shouted out from the stage, sometimes even to insult the audience, thus, giving them even more food for thought.
Martha Graham Cracker was, on the other hand, advertised at Joe’s Pub as “the world’s tallest and hairiest drag queen”. Indeed – the gigantic body, hairy chest, feminine face in a meticulous make-up and a wig, which the actor rearranges continuously – all this creates more of a stage personality than a real person – unlike the former two acts. Its author – Dito van Reigersberg of the Pig Iron Company says that there are things that Martha does and he does not, but being her is, in a sense, always a political act. When performed by Martha, the songs by Prince, Crowded House or Nina Simone in new arrangements and mash-ups gain fresh, unexpected meanings. Interactions with the audience are not just pure fun, but in fact turn into discussions with the audience, for instance, should he go to Sochi and make out in front of Putin or should he rather boycott him and stay?
The queer in Joe’s Pub – with all the personality differences of the queer artists and the variety of their stage strategies – has, however, no longer a particularly subversive quality – the audience is too friendly and the atmosphere of cultural entertainment is too obvious. Technically, there is also nothing rebellious any more in flaunting your own non-standard gender or non-heterosexuality on stage. In this sense, Joe’s Pub could be considered a proof for the success of the homosexual revolution during a lifetime of a single generation – if not in the whole of the USA, then at least in New York. Back in the 1960s, homosexuality was still considered a crime and gay bars and club theatres in Greenwich Village had to fork out hefty sums as payoffs to the police to be left alone. So the origins of the queer avant-garde are – in the literal meaning of the word – criminal, unless someone would prefer to label it “underground”.
The founder of the first queer stage in New York was Joe Cino. It was in Greenwich Village’s Caffe Cino in the 1960s where the first gay plays were staged, such as Lanford Wilson’s groundbreaking “The Madness of Lady Bright” (1964), a drama about a drag queen growing old alone while haunted by the memories of all her past lovers. It was performed 250 times in the tight club space of Caffe Cino. It was also then that drag queens started to perform in another underground theatre – The Play-House of the Ridiculous, founded by John Vaccaro. Both Vaccaro and Charles Ludlam, who was also associated with the venue, were constantly threatened with arrest for staging the shows. Without overt homosexual themes, camp esthetics and queer strategies of those times, it is impossible to discuss the history of the American alternative theatre. Penny Arcade, who has set her first steps on the stage in the Ridiculous is amazed that historians of art are able to pinpoint the visual origins of the contemporary performance, but – at the same time – theatre historians have no idea what its theatre origins are, when in fact they are exactly to be found in the “criminal, psychedelic, homosexual avant-garde” …
The traditions of a queer solo performance are one of the most original and creative in the history of American theatre. This has of course a bitter aspect as too often the solo performances – thanks to the system of (not)financing the theatre – have been the result of economic necessity rather than an artistic choice. Still, if in case of American theatre one can ever talk about any critical strategies, these were consciously worked out by the queer performers themselves. They are the ones who, more often than any others, take personal risks by engaging their own biography and identity on stage; they were also the ones who found themselves at the beginning of the 1990s on the first line of the so-called culture wars. Their victims were: Karen Finley, Tim Miller, Holly Hughes and John Fleck – artists emblematic for the feminist and queer solo performance. The governmental fund of the National Endowment for the Arts refused them grants for their artistic projects, basing its decision on the “decency clause” adopted by the Congress, as their openly proclaimed homosexuality was in fact on the list of topics covered (and in practice banned) by the US legislative body. The performers, later called the “NEA Four”, decided to exert their rights in court, and although eventually they did receive the grants, the Supreme Court decided to uphold the incriminated clause in 1998, and the National Endowment for the Arts discarded funding individual artists in general under the influence of the Congress.
It has been half a century since the first illegal gay shows were staged and almost a quarter of a century since Reagan’s crusade against indecency began. The New York queer scene is now moving briskly towards the mainstream. If, of course, “the queer scene” can be defined as a place of manifestation of homosexual, bisexual, and transgender identities. In 2014, the big stage of The Public Theatre – where Joe’s Pub is also set – produced a musical adaptation of Alice Bechdel’s “Fun Home” graphic novel – an autobiographical story of a lesbian coming out as well as the author’s unhappy father, who, being unable to reveal his homosexuality, committed suicide. The show was a huge success. And later this year at the Broadway, “Hedwig and the Angry Inch”, a musical about a transgender vocalist of an East German rock group as a front man is a box-office hit, although years have past since its first preview showing and its screen adaptation.
Pressing questions arise: is such art still subversive or is it actually bourgeois already? Are homosexual themes still queer? Isn’t it the case that the queer scene should be defined by something more than just the presence of non-heterosexual performers? In this sense Joe’s Pub with the shows of Justin Vivian Bond, Penny Arcade or Martha Graham Cracker is actually an in-between place like that. Liminal and tucked between blockbuster entertainment with queer topics and truly progressive queer theatre, which is still to be found only in niches – on the club stages and in off-off-Broadway theaters. This is where rejecting the heteromatrix (heteronormative paradigm) is closely connected to social activism and involvement in the issues of race, class, power, poverty, violence, ecology, sickness, old age, politics, etc. And where what is truly queer is dependent not on the LGBTQ sexuality, but on being a misfit that allows one to see the world from a genuinely different perspective.