If you turned on the TV today, or walked through Capitol Hill before the pandemic, you might have heard someone say, “yaaaaas, Queen!” or “Not today, Satan!” Cue the snaps and finger-wagging. “RuPaul’s Drag Race” may have just recently pierced the stratosphere of mainstream popular culture, but Queer culture has always been an important and consistent presence throughout world history. From the wall etchings of an ancient Egyptian tomb to the early Shakespearean sonnets, from The Well of Loneliness to the first Trans cultural district; Queer lives were always there.
In recent years, Seattle Rep has presented a diverse array of queer narratives on stage. This past season, we saw queer relationships and history in Indecent, Shout Sister Shout!, and The Importance of Being Earnest.
"This. is. THEATRE!"
Cheyenne Casebier and Andi Alhadeff performing the famous rain scene in Indecent (2019). Photo by Bronwen Houck.
In the fall, Seattle Rep presented Indecent by Paula Vogel, directed by Sheila Daniels. The play recounts the creation, global appreciation, and controversy of the 1906 play God of Vengeance by Sholem Asch, which is set in a brothel and features a lesbian relationship that blossoms in the rain. Vogel praised Asch for “the play’s compassionate understanding of the powerlessness of women in that time and place —Asch is a young married man, in a very early work, writing the most astonishing love story between two women— and it makes a pretty compelling play to read and perform.”
“This will be the only role in my lifetime where I could tell someone I love that I love her onstage” —Reina, Indecent
When the play had its New York premiere at Vineyard Theatre, Vogel said: “I don’t think of this as a grim play; I think about it as a love story in terrible times. If we love music and theatre and the arts, if we take solace in people sitting beside us in the theatre, if we do what is in our hearts, I think there is light for us. I think the power of us being together in a community gives us light through the darkness. I’m writing this play because, regardless of what I’ve witnessed in my life, I’ve never been sorry that I’ve spent my life in the theatre. I think the power of art is the power to wound our memory. I think the power of art is a way for us to change our world view. I think art is our spiritual bread that we break together.”
MORE LOVE, MORE UNDERSTANDING
Allison Semmes and Carrie Compere singing “That’s All” in Shout Sister Shout! (2019). Photo by Bronwen Houck.
Following Indecent, we were thrilled to present Shout Sister Shout!, a biographical play with music based on the life of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the Godmother of Rock ‘n’ Roll.
Written by Seattle Rep’s most-produced living playwright Cheryl L. West, the play highlights Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s spectacular rise to stardom and her influence on rock ‘n’ roll (along with another Queer rock 'n' roll icon, Little Richard), but also her struggle to keep her faith in the midst of a loving relationship with singer Marie Knight.
“But does that mean I’m not supposed to have love in my life? Ever? Maybe I shouldn’t say this, maybe you don’t even wanna hear it but Mama I ain’t never cared how love came packaged, whether it was a man or woman. I just love, love.” —Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Shout Sister Shout!
CUCUMBERS FOR READY MONEY
Jonathan Farwell, Elizabeth MacDonald, and John Gilbert in Seattle Rep’s 1965 production of The Importance of Being Earnest. Photographer unknown.
This spring, we were unable to present our production of The Importance of Being Earnest, but we gained insight on the play during prep work with director Casey Stangl and set designer Carey Wong. Although The Importance of Being Earnest is not explicitly queer, the history and (supposed) subtext drip with gay innuendo.
Although Earnest is considered the definitive Victorian comedy, the playwright, Oscar Wilde, was not so lovingly received at the time. Wilde’s plays had consistently been met with praise, but his snobbish personality, his affinity for “aestheticism,” and his affairs with noblemen and male escorts led to his exclusion from most social circles. One affair, in particular, resulted in Wilde’s exile and eventual demise.
In Earnest, many have found that there are two plays: one play for an unsuspecting heterosexual audience, and one play for a flaming Queer audience. I choose to read and watch the second play. In this version, innuendo infiltrates the story and makes it all so delicious. For example: the name Cecily was Victorian slang for male prostitute, and Cecily loves cucumbers...sandwiches. Unfortunately, the character of Algernon (originally named Alfred after Wilde’s lover, but later changed) has gobbled up all the cucumber sandwiches, and there are no cucumbers available for ready money. Wink wink.
QUEER LIVES IN THE FUTURE
Many believe that this year’s Pride month is harnessing the energy of its origins: a protest against the confines of white heterosexuality. I think back to the reason for the season, Marsha P. Johnson, a Black trans drag queen activist from Jersey who threw the first shot glass at the Stonewall Inn in 1969. We all come with many stories. And, as you can see from the stories we have presented this season, Queer narratives are not always “happy.” They are messy, steeped in conflict, and consistently very tragic. But, they are also hopeful, helplessly funny, full of love, and just so beautiful. And this is why I am so glad Queer culture is becoming “popular.” We have always been here and we have always wanted to share our beauty with you.
Reed Flores is a CHamoru theater maker, born in Guam, but raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. He was the Directing/Literary Intern at Seattle Rep for the 2019/20 season, and is now a Directing Apprentice at Actor's Theatre of Louisville. Reed enjoys a good lasagna recipe, and a communicative partner. brownguydesign.com