Okay, now that you’ve seen how cute I looked last Friday night (June 14), let’s give some praise to the reason I went out in the first place…
Last Friday was a well-needed day off from my work assignment. Having that day off would be serendipitous for me, as I put in a little bit of walking in the morning, a little bit of shopping at midday… and a little bit of theater in the evening.
If you’re a frequent reader of this blog, or at least an aficionado of Madison’s theater community, you’re probably familiar with Stage Q, a theater group dedicated to advancing the creative voices and stories of LGBTQ+ people here in Madison. For the past 14 years, Stage Q’s cornerstone event has been Queer Shorts, a collection of queer-oriented (naturally) one-act plays, each united by a certain theme every year (e.g. love, remembrance).
This year, the golden anniversary of the Stonewall riots are the inspiration for Queer Shorts: Spirit of Stonewall, which had its premiere staging last Friday and will run on weekends through the end of this month. That closing weekend is serendipitous, in that it coincides with the actual anniversary of that fateful early morning of June 28, 1969.
That “shot glass heard round the world” had, as a Stage Q promotional card reminds us, “a ripple effect throughout LGBTQ+ history.” And with Queer Shorts: Spirit of Stonewall, they wanted to show some of those ripples in action. As they elaborate, the 10 one-act plays are meant to capture…
“Anger, rebellion, and unyielding pride. Stories of overcoming persecution and bigotry, stories of love triumphing over hate, stories of perseverance and acceptance. The goal is to present stories of how our community has risen over the past half century and where our community is heading in our continuing fight for visibility and equality.”
In other words, it’s an emphasis not on what happened half a century ago, but on what has occurred since to a community that wants to “be seen, be heard, and be felt” (another quote from their promo card).
So, how did they do? Well, as a whole, the show succeeds in being not only inspiring but also reminding its audience of its theme. If I dare say it, of all the Queer Shorts events I’ve seen over the years, Spirit of Stonewall adheres the closest to the theme prescribed of it. Seriously, I think the Stage Q staff made outstanding selections.
So, consider this a recommendation to [turning on bold font] go see this show! Seriously, if you’re in Madison for any reason between now and June 29, buy your tickets! Twenty bucks is a small price to pay for performances that are enjoyable, poignant, funny, intense (one frighteningly so), and inspiring. Not to mention the fact that this will be the last Queer Shorts (more on that later).
But you want details, you say? All right, let’s run down chronologically what Queer Shorts: Spirit of Stonewall includes, as well as how they fit the show’s goal. A bit of a warning, however: Though I’ll try to be oblique with details to these 10 segments, some ***SPOILER ALERTS*** are upcoming (don’t worry, I’ll warn you). But don’t let these spoilers dissuade you from attending; the power of this show is better absorbed in person. (Again, go see this show!)
“Aunt Joanne” — This first segment of the night starts out with the titular woman at a restaurant, waiting impatiently for a guest and griping over her phone about how her gay nephew is joyful over “where homosexuals can now marry.” (This remark suggests that the setting is just before Obergefell v. Hodges, but time is unimportant here.) Along comes a gentleman, Zach, waiting for his own dinner guest. The two strike up a conversation and find that they have some things in common, namely heartbreaking loss. Their conversation is a lead-up to a final moment when things tie together in a big way.
How it fits the theme: Okay, ***SPOILER*** coming: Zach is gay, though to the play’s credit, it’s not made obvious until the very end. As a whole, it shows not only the importance of acceptance but also of looking past the identities and biases erected before each of us.
“The Good Fight” — Here are two gentleman, Alex and Brian, waiting at an attorney’s office. They know they need to be there, but they’d rather be part of a rally they can see from the office window. While waiting for the attorney, they spend their time reflecting on their lives together, how far they’ve come as a couple, and how hard they’ve fought to stand up and speak out for the rights that had long been denied of them. Speaking of rights…
How it fits the theme: This segment draws a through line from where this particular couple has been — in love but unmarried — to what they have now, i.e. many of the same rights heterosexual couples enjoy. The LGBT rally outside the office serves as a reminder (passive though it may be) that those rights should never become tenuous.
“Toppers” — That’s the term bakers use for the figures found on the top of a wedding cake, such as those created by baker Seth. But instead of an apron, Seth is wearing ***SPOILER*** a robe on his person and bandages around his hands. He just lost his bakery in a fire, and along comes Bobbie with a vanilla cake — and a bone to pick. Bobbie still holds a grudge over Seth denying service to her and her wife… even after she saved Seth from that fire.
How it fits the theme: The second-most angry play of the night (more on the most angry play later), this reminds the audience that discrimination is still a problem for our community to confront.
“Love at the Tropicana” — Set in the mid 1960s, this play finds Barbara and Doug at one of those (for the time) newfangled themed resorts/hotels/bars/whatever that are now popular in Las Vegas (in this case, a tropical theme). But partying down is not on the closeted Doug’s mind: Worried about getting inducted into the Army and being set to Vietnam, he runs through ideas on how to avoid service, from faking an injury to moving to Canada to… wait for it… marrying Barbara.
How it fits the theme: It’s a reminder of how far we’ve come from a time when gays and lesbians would try anything to hide their true sexual identity, let alone get out of military service.
“Faking Glory” — Just as fun and flighty as the play before it, this one finds high school seniors Marija and Carlos in their school’s girls bathroom (nothing wrong with that here). Carlos talks about how in 10 years their school and classmates will mean nothing to either of them. By then, Carlos reasons, they’re going to be famous. Or at least he will, beginning with his candidacy for homecoming queen (paying no mind to the fact that he was nominated as a joke). Wallflower Marija wants nothing to do with homecoming, wanting to explore her sexual identity at her pace.
But how does it fit the theme? This play obliquely addresses how younger generations are moving past issues of public school bathrooms and “homecoming king/queen” titles. More than that, it shows the importance of self-pride, no matter which letter of the acronym you fall under or how disapproving the rest of the world may be.
(Side note: Michael Bruno of WISC Television offers some rehearsal footage from “Faking Glory” as well as interviews with the actors and director who make up this play. Check it out at this link.)
“Closing Arguments” — No, this segment wasn’t set in a courtroom. And, no, this wasn’t the angriest play of the night (that’s still yet to come). But an argument does indeed take place between two women truly in love with each other. Why the fiery debate? Sierra has just proposed marriage to Effie, who gives (***SPOILERS***) an “uh, I’m not sure about this” type of response. A point/counterpoint follows, with Sierra stating the two of them should make their commitment legal (since they now have the right), and Effie believing they should at least wait until others receive their rights first (the trans community in particular). Besides, Effie also reasons, marriage is so “heteronormative.” A sweet moment creates a détente at the end, though, and the two appear to realize that the love between them can overcome, or at least postpone, any disagreement.
How it fits the theme: Well, there’s mention of other rights that need to be gained. But it also reminds us that marriage equality is both a right and a non-compulsory.
“Sketches for Danae” — Funny yet heartfelt (and one of the two sweetest plays of the night, along with “The Good Fight”), this act finds young Aubrey seeking ways to explore her sexuality, including sneaking an erotic lesbian book from the 18+ section of her local library. Librarian Jane, herself openly gay, catches her in the act (“Do you have an ID?”). But Jane isn’t above helping Aubrey explore her sexual identity. No, not in that way (get your head out of the gutter).
But how does it fit the theme? It’s about exploring who you may be without abandon, as well as the proper guidance of a more mature queer generation (again, not in that way; seriously, get your head out of the gutter).
“The Last Minute Suspense” — This one delves into Wisconsin’s history books. And you don’t need a spoiler alert to know that in 1982, Wisconsin governor Lee Sherman Dreyfus signed into law AB70, legislation that ensured that no one in the Badger State could be discriminated in employment, housing, and public accommodations based on their sexual identity. But it wasn’t without a lot of debate, as calls to the governor’s office come hot and heavy from both sides of the issue. Dreyfus encourages and listens to the debate, and thinks long and hard on signing AB70. Which he does, of course, out of a belief in a fundamental founding principle of his Republican Party — that government should have no business in people’s private and personal lives. (My, how times have changed.)
How it fits the theme: It’s a reminder of the times when our state was willing to commit to our “Forward” motto and look past one’s sexuality and value them as a person. Need I remind you, the Badger State has sent to Washington an openly lesbian U.S. Senator — twice.
And before we move on, a couple of side notes about this segment: Lee Dreyfus is admirably played by Bryan Royston, who, aside from a comparably slim waistline and a not-so-husky voice, resembles the governor nicely (right down to wearing Dreyfus’ trademark red vest). Also, a passing comment from the governor about the legalization of marijuana causes his communications aide, already haggled by the incoming calls over AB70, to drop her papers in shock; even with this play’s general seriousness, this pratfall generated a hearty yet knowing chuckle from the audience.
“172 Push-Ups” — Directed by Betsy Wood and co-starring Ren Kaspar (both of whom are featured in this interview with WMTV Television), this play is an off-chance conversation on a bus stop bench between an older man who isn’t entirely accepting of same-sex couples, and a younger woman (Kaspar’s character) who’s come back from Army service and is ready to propose to her girlfriend. It’s more of a character study than a hot debate; and just as with the leads in “Aunt Joanne,” these two have more things in common than what differentiates them.
How it fits the theme: Similar in vein to “Toppers” but nowhere near as combative. In fact, it’s quite hopeful, and proves that a little bit of kindness, and relating with someone you may not feel comfortable with, can go a long way.
For sure, those nine segments are moving, stirring, enjoyable, and well done. But there’s a 10th segment I need to talk about in great detail. Before I do, I must advise you that ***SPOILERS*** lie ahead. Oh, and a ***TRIGGER WARNING*** as well, as we’re gonna bring up violence. And if you don’t believe me, the Bartell staff post a content advisory as you enter the theater.
First a recollection of how, in some of my past Queer Shorts reviews, I compared their last segments to the “10 minutes to 1” slot that closes Saturday Night Live. Oftentimes, SNL brings up the rear with something wacky and off the wall, their line of thinking being, “Eh, it’s not all that strong of a strong sketch, but we’ll see if it’ll get some laughs.”
For sure, not every Queer Shorts has closed with something equally peculiar. And they didn’t this year with “The Thin Blue Line,” a play that generates more than a few playful chuckles. But by the end, however…
Let’s get into detail (and, again, ***SPOILERS***): The setting is a drag show, complete with a glamorously dressed announcer and heckler that prove I wasn’t the only one in the theater that was all dolled up. (I’m so jealous how of how good they looked.) “Auntie Climax” was outlandishly dressed as well, a drag performer with lots of attitude and a desire to do her own thing — like wear a skirt made of yellow “Caution” tape (a hint of what was to come?).
Auntie Climax’s act is stand-up comedy. At the outset, she came off as a Joan Rivers type, offering scathing observations, playfully interacting with the crowd, and parrying with the aforementioned heckler. But she points to someone in the audience — an apparently off-duty police officer — starts making a few jokes about the boys in blue…
And before you know it, Auntie Climax morphs into Lenny Bruce. She becomes pointed, mentioning unsettling statistics about the transgender murder rate. She becomes biting, turning more than once on that policeman enjoying(?) the comedy. She gets under people’s skin, with the heckler departing in fear and the announcer and stage director becoming visibly concerned. She becomes manic, turning a playful wielding of a baseball bat into pantomime violence (or so it’s interpreted).
Then like a bolt of lightning, Auntie Climax turns downright angry, and accusatory. That officer in the crowd that she kept pointing to? Well… ***TRIGGER WARNING*** She accuses him of murdering her trans friend. And as she’s ready to tear him a new one, uniformed officers are there to hold her down, cuff her, and literally drag her away. As they do, she defiantly yells in anger. What started out as a fun segment, and an enjoyable night, ends in chilling fashion, with Auntie letting out a very loud, menacing, and unladylike scream of rage long after the Evjue Stage’s lights have faded to deep black.
So, lemme ask you, how do you feel after reading that last paragraph? You’re in shock, huh? Now you know how the audience felt as the stage lights were coming back up for the cast’s final bows. Sure, we applauded appreciatively… but it was a muted and very nervous round, as if we were wondering to ourselves “What on Earth just happened?” It’s been a few days after seeing that play, and I’m still stunned by how it (and Queer Shorts) ended. For me, and perhaps the faithful Stage Q devotees as well, it’s gotta be the most unsettling Queer Shorts segment ever.
Just who’s responsible? Well, credit writer Maxton Young-Jones and director Shannon Harper, who devised a production that goes from lively and catty to scary and brutal in a span of under 10 minutes. Credit, too, actor Adam DuVall, for filling Auntie Climax’s heels and playing this queen with two startlingly different definitions of “fierceness” at the same time.
But don’t leave Stage Q’s producers without involvement in this. I imagine they saw how this play developed, from first submission to last rehearsal, and felt it would have a large impact on the audience if it brought up the end of a fun evening. “Okay,” they probably reasoned, “you want an ending you’ll never forget? Here you go.” Guess what, Stage Q? It worked.
The tone of “The Thin Blue Line” goes hand in hand with its brutal subject matter. The murder of Auntie Climax’s friend is a dramatization of a real problem — the broad lack of consideration and care for the trans community. If you haven’t heard, we’re being overlooked and shut out, from the actions of a transphobic federal government to law enforcement who don’t pay a lot of mind when a trans person dies suspiciously (especially if they’re someone of color). It’s akin to sweeping dust under a rug: Keep this community out of sight and pretend it doesn’t exist.
But we do exist. And as dark and provocative as it may be, “The Thin Blue Line” is a reminder to not forget the “T” of the LGBT acronym. The rights of and respect for trans people is an ongoing fight. In other words, to use that quote from the Stage Q promo card again, we must “be seen, be heard, and be felt.”
My two big gripes with this play is that, for one, it’s the only play of the night directly dealing with trans subject matter or characters (no, the passing mention of trans rights in “Closing Arguments” doesn’t count). Additionally, I wished that with that trans representation came a positive tone and outcome; yes, we need to show that we’re struggling, but there’s also a need to show that we’re not the freaks the naysayers think we are.
(Oh, and to my fellow trans sisters and brothers scoffing at seeing a drag queen in this play: Drag performers are just as much a part of the broad trans community as those who live full-time. At least give Auntie Climax credit for giving a damn about a trans sister.)
One other thing that must be brought up in relation to the night’s theme: “The Thin Blue Line” is suggested to occur in the present day. Its confirmed setting is a certain club at 53 Christopher Street in Greenwich Village — The Stonewall Inn. And just as a trans person has long been credited with starting an LGBT revolution at that spot in 1969, another trans figure (albeit a fictitious character) picks up that figurative shot glass in 2019. If that doesn’t say “Spirit of Stonewall,” I don’t know what else does.
Let’s turn to much happier housekeeping items for the rest of this post, beginning with the atmosphere settings Stage Q utilizes for this production. As mentioned in passing above, Spirit of Stonewall is playing in the Evjue Stage, which is the smaller of the Bartell’s two stages and where last year’s Queer Shorts was staged. While the Evjue lacks in seating, it more than makes up for it in intimacy, with the actors, and Queer Shorts’ traditional blocks for furniture/tables/etc., literally within a few feet of the audience.
A nice visual touchstone of Spirit of Stonewall is the backdrop behind which the actors perform. It’s not just a black curtain that rainbow-hued lights can project on. There are also vertical arrays of photos from the LGBT+ community, and Madison queers in particular. Included, from what I recall, are a march outside the Stonewall Inn (naturally), Governor Dreyfus signing AB70 in 1982, and the more recent sight of a rainbow flag flying over Wisconsin’s State Capitol for the first time, which made big news this month. (Thank you, Governor Evers!) I admit I took a glance at all that history every now and again during the show, and gave them a better gaze during intermission and post-show; my goodness, did they have me mesmerized.
There’s also an aspect of Spirit of Stonewall that doesn’t come through in the performances yet is still significant: Half of the 10 plays are written by local playwrights. Stage Q’s mission has been raise LGBT+ voices in general and those of the local queer community in particular. To that end, last year Stage Q received a grant through the Wisconsin Arts Board, which they used to set up a workshop called WorkShorts. Last fall and winter, local playwrights assembled to develop and refine their very own pieces together. Their WorkShorts efforts led to three plays that merited selection for this year’s Queer Shorts (“Closing Arguments,” “The Last Minute Suspense,” and “The Thin Blue Line”). Two other plays (“Aunt Joanne” and “The Good Fight”) were also penned by local writers, while the rest were culled from the nationwide submission process that begins each Queer Shorts cycle. So, let’s hear it for local queer writing!
Regardless of the quality of the plays and the talent behind them, one bumming fact hangs over this production: Spirit of Stonewall will be the last Queer Shorts production. For at least a little while anyway. A mainstay of each Stage Q season since 2006, it’s proved popular enough to continue well past their original plan to sunset it after 10 years. It’s going to look pretty strange next year, though, when we don’t see those two wonderful words — Queer Shorts — grace the Bartell’s marquis.
But have no fear, as Stage Q will instead do something totally different and quite daring next spring. They will revamp Queer Shorts into what will be called the first “CapitalQ Theatre Festival.” Just as with Queer Shorts, submissions of original queer stories and performances will be sent to Stage Q’s producers for consideration. Various state acting troupes, high school drama clubs, college theater classes, and theater companies will be encouraged to send in their works. From that batch of submissions will come a smorgasbord of one-acts, monologues, and short plays, running for just one weekend only (May 14-17). Oh, and make a day(s) of it, for the presentations will occupy both of the Bartell Theatre’s units, the intimate Evjue and larger Drury stages, day and night.
So let that be reason enough to buy your tickets for Queer Shorts: Spirit of Stonewall. I’d rather not say it’ll be gone forever, so let’s say instead that Stage Q is retiring Queer Shorts for just a little while after June 29.
As you buy those tickets, don’t forget about this year’s important theme. For sure, the whole LGBT+ community has come so far in the past half-century. But the struggle is still there. I’ll close (finally) with a couple of remarks from the “Producer’s Note” section of the show’s program, as written by its executive producer, Bri Mueller:
“Our queer community’s history is tenuous, formed in the face of hatred, suppression, violence, and hopelessness. But we know our history has also inspired activism, art, hope, community, and change.”
So definitely go see the show. Even if Queer Shorts’ ending is unsettling, in more ways than one…
“Cry with us, laugh with us, cheer and shout… and most importantly, never give up the fight, never put down your bricks. The fight is never won. We hope to inspire you to keep the spirit of Stonewall alive.”
And if you want further encouragement to go, check out this video from Facebook promoting Spirit of Stonewall. Seriously, go see this show!