Tuesday, October 22, 2019

These Ain't Your Grandmother's Lesbian Friends

One of the most frequent quotes invoked by President Barack Obama came from the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.: "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Despite years of social progress for many groups that had traditionally been kept in the shadows by mass media, during the Obama administration the media became much more responsible about focusing on issues that affect minorities -- from veterans and African Americans to Native Americans and the disabled.

One minority group which enjoyed a noticeable acceleration in its political progress along the path to obtaining civil rights was the LGBT community. From same-sex marriage to an awareness of homophobic bullying, from the end of the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy to President Obama's statements about the need to end the loathsome practice of conversion therapies for gay youth, there was a steady improvement in the recognition and understanding of LGBT issues.

With the Trump administration filled with rabidly homophobic Evangelicals like Vice-President Mike Pence and white supremacists like Stephen Miller, continued attempts to encode discrimination against LGBT people through state RFRA laws has generated media storms with some surprising results. That's why it is so important to constantly be reminded of the famous quote from Harvey Milk "You gotta give them hope."

For those who lived through a half century of the LGBT civil rights movement, it's sobering to look at the theatrical literature that has evolved since gay men, lesbians, and trans people started coming out. A quick sampling of important gay plays includes:
Those who have survived the AIDS crisis, fagbashings, substance abuse, and depression won't have much trouble noticing that many of these plays involve a group of gay men whose social lives are connected by a common thread. That thread may be their sexuality, their social history, their volunteerism, or the psychological wounds they have suffered from the hyperreligious people in their lives. Most often, their common thread is the need for a safe place to meet up with others like themselves.

Sometimes they meet in one man's apartment, a couple's private home, a bathhouse, or a rented vacation spot. Sometimes the event involves a birthday party or a chance to cross dress for an entire weekend. Some dramas commemorate the struggles the gay community faced in the early years of the AIDS epidemic or the night a group of gay men met their death when an arsonist torched a popular gay bar in New Orleans.

In August of 2018, San Francisco's Left Coast Theatre Company presented the world premiere of Come Here Often, an intriguing drama co-written by Erica Andracchio, Terry Maloney Haley, Neil Higgins, Rita Long, and Chris Maltby. While many colorful characters are on deck throughout the play, the protagonist is not human. Instead, it is a gay bar in the Castro named The Parlour which has withstood the ravages of time and, if all goes well, will celebrate its 50th anniversary in the not too distant future.

Over several decades, The Parlour has served as a drinking hole, living room, pick-up joint, and "home away from home" for gay men and lesbians who arrive in San Francisco hoping to start their lives anew. Unlike Cheers, The Parlour may not be the place where everyone knows your name. But it is a safe and welcoming haven for those who have been rejected for much of their lives.
Come Here Often used a curious gimmick to anchor the bar's importance in San Francisco's LGBT community by setting the action in three different decades.
  • In the summer of 1978, San Francisco was still celebrating the historic election of Harvey Milk as the first openly-gay member of the city and county's Board of Supervisors. Castro Street was flooded with new arrivals in town eager to live in a city where gays were not reviled and there was hope for a brighter future. However, by year's end, Milk had been assassinated by Supervisor Dan White, forever changing the course of LGBT history.
  • By 1998 (nearly a year after Ellen DeGeneres made headlines by coming out of the closet on her television show), many gay people were struggling with depression. On October 6, Matthew Shepard was beaten and left to die on a fence outside of Laramie, Wyoming. For those who survived the early years of the HIV/AIDS crisis and, thanks to new drug regimens, were living with a "manageable disease," Shepard's brutal murder was a devastating reminder of what could happen to LGBT people who live in small towns.
  • By 2018, same-sex marriage had been legalized by the United States Supreme Court but, following the election of Donald Trump, the social and political advances made by LGBT people began experiencing increased pushback along with homophobic acts of violence that had the potential to force many people back into closeted lifestyles. In an era of heightened sensitivity to political correctness, The Parlour's owner/bartender made it a point not to discriminate against anyone who entered the premises.
While most LGBT plays focus on gay men, as part of its Sandbox Series for New Works the San Francisco Playhouse recently presented the world premiere of Patricia Cotter's new drama entitled The Daughters. Directed by Jessica Holt, the play's two acts are separated by more than a half century. As the company's artistic director, Bill English, notes on SFP's blog:
The Daughters strikes an absolute bullseye in our Empathy Gym. It is a play we simply had to do, not only because it takes us into the lives and hearts of women under-represented in the theatre, but because it is an essential San Francisco story. Like King of the Yees last season, it brings us closer to ourselves and our great city. The title comes from the Daughters of Bilitis, the first lesbian civil and political rights organization in the U.S. and the courageous women who came together on a fateful night at the apartment of Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon. Facing the fears that had previously isolated them and also the very real physical dangers of assembly, they had to learn how to speak to each other, to build language that addressed their common concerns, and forge a consensus around their common cause.”
Evelyn (Olivia Levine), Mal (Katie Rubin), Griff (Molly Shaiken),
Shorty (Em Lee Reaves), and Peggy (Erin Anderson) meet
for the first time in 1955 in a scene from The Daughters
(Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)
“Another exciting facet of The Daughters is that it spans 60 years from the first meeting of the DOB to the closing night of The Lexington Club, the last lesbian bar in San Francisco. It is an epic journey of beginnings and endings. From the search for a safe place to gather, to a time when a different sanctuary was no longer viable. Was the closing of the Lexington a loss? A sign of positive change to a more open society where queer women were free to assemble in more openly integrated spaces? There is certainly no simple answer, but as we watch this eloquent San Francisco odyssey, we are grateful to Patricia Cotter for telling this complex and essential story with compassion and wit. As a straight male with no previous understanding of what these struggles were, I am deeply moved by the way these pioneer women faced down the repression that kept them apart and in the dark, and brought their common cause into the light where they could share their sisterhood.”
Leslie (Jeunée Simon), Gina (Katie Rubin), and Natalie (Erin
Anderson) attend the 2015 closing night of The Lexington Club
in a scene from The Daughters (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

Businesses shut down for numerous reasons (the popular local lesbian bar named Maud's closed in 1989). San Francisco is currently seeing many vacant storefronts as a result of prohibitive rent increases on commercial properties. Small family businesses like Lucca Ravioli often reach a point where the owners are nearing retirement and have realized that it is in their best interest to sell the property rather than bequeath their family business to a younger generation.

No one should underestimate the effect of computer technology on our lives. Over the past 10 years Amazon has done a stunning job of driving independent book and record stores out of business. Yelp and other websites that facilitate ordering food from restaurants have taken a similar toll on profit margins in cities across America. Ride share services like Uber and Lyft have peeled passengers away from public transit as well as the taxicab industry. As any accountant will tell you: the numbers don't lie.

Articles have recently appeared citing the closures of popular gay bars in cities like New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. In some ways, what Amazon has done to retail, the hookup culture made possible by social media apps like Grindr and Scruff has done to dating. It is now just as as easy to have a sex partner delivered to one's doorstep as a pizza. The result? The bulk of a specialty business's sales have evaporated from bars like The Lexington Club, that have long been considered community institutions.

Griff (Molly Shaiken), Evelyn (Olivia Levine), Vivian (Jeunée Simon),
Shorty (Em Lee Reaves), Mal (Katie Rubin), and Peggy (Erin Anderson)
in a scene from Act I of The Daughters (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

Act I of The Daughters is set in 1955 when, for many LGBT people, the threat of physical violence (from the police or ordinary people) was a given. The simple act of advertising a meeting in a private home could draw the wrong crowd, which is why the use of code words was as important then as safe passwords are for browsing the Internet today (The Queens' Vernacular: A Gay Lexicon and Gay Talk: A Sometimes Outrageous Dictionary of Gay Slang by Bruce Rodgers have become historic LGBT resources).

As The Daughters begins, Peggy (Erin Anderson) and her lover, Mal (Martha Brigham), nervously await the appearance of the few brave lesbians willing to answer their ad. Over the course of a somewhat awkward evening, they welcome the skittish Evelyn (Olivia Levine), a black journalist named Vivian (Jeunée Simon) who lives in New York with a gay man in a marriage of convenience, and two butch women -- Shorty (Em Lee Reaves) and Griff (Molly Shaiken) -- who arrive dressed as men carrying suitcases that contain their female clothing. As was common at the time, the second bedroom in the home is set up as if Peggy and Mal were merely roommates; going out on the balcony to smoke a cigarette risks exposure to nosy neighbors, and the simple act of going to a corner bodega to purchase some wine could invite unnecessary danger.

Evelyn (Olivia Levine), Peggy (Erin Anderson) and Shorty
(Em Lee Reaves) in a scene from The Daughters
(Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

As a gay man, watching Act I often felt like seeing life in a parallel universe as lesbians went through the same struggles as gay men to embrace their identity and find the strength to define themselves. As a member of the Rhode Island Gay Alliance in the early 1970s, I was one of the few people in that group who was willing to go out on speaking dates (most members were severely closeted, had no interest in movement politics, demonstrated little desire to discuss gay theory, and were far more focused on getting laid).

Watching the determined efforts of a true believer like Mal to run a serious organizational meeting brought back memories of what it was like trying to get local queers (as well as students from Brown University, Providence College, and the Rhode Island School of Design) interested in politics when all they really wanted was a place other than the downtown bars where they could cruise and dance.

Leslie (Jeunée Simon), Gina (Katie Rubin), and Natalie (Erin
Anderson) attend the 2015 closing night of The Lexington Club
in a scene from The Daughters (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

Act II of The Daughters zooms forward to 2015 when computers, social progress, and looser lifestyles have made the need for many women to self-identify as lesbians somewhat questionable. Among the women celebrating the closing night of The Lexington Club are Ani (Olivia Levine), who prefers to think of herself as genderqueer; Leslie (Jeunée Simon), an old-fashioned femme lesbian who misses the way she used to be treated by butch dykes; Natalie (Erin Anderson), a college professor who turns out to have once had Ani as a student; and Gina (Martha Brigham), Natalie's partner who has never quite gotten over the loss of her previous love, who transitioned into a trans man. When Jefferson (Molly Shaiken) arrives at the bar, hoping for a chance to make amends with Gina, her passion is still quite volatile although Jefferson now has a much better grasp on who he is and why.

Jefferson (Molly Shaiken), Leslie (Jeunée Simon), Natalie
(Erin Anderson), and Gina (Katie Rubin) celebrate the closing
of the Lexington Club in a scene from The Daughters
(Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

With costumes by Chanterelle Grover, sound design by Lana Palmer, lighting by Chris Lundahl, and scenic design by Randy Wong-Westbrooke, Jessica Holt has done some impressive work with San Francisco Playhouse's tightly-knit ensemble. A special shout-out goes to the talented Martha Brigham (one of the Bay area's strongest and most chameleon-like actors), who stepped in on short notice to replace the woman originally scheduled to portray Mal and Gina after Katie Rubin was injured. Erin Anderson brought a sweet sense of a mature woman with plenty of acquired wisdom to her portrayals of Peggy and Natalie and, as is so often the case on Bay area stages, Jeunée Simon was a riveting presence doubling as Vivian and Leslie.

Leslie (Jeunée Simon) wins the wet T-Shirt contest on the closing
night of the Lexington Club in a scene from The Daughters
(Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

To my surprise, the two actors who most impressed Molly Shaiken (doubling as Griff and Jefferson) and Em Lee Reaves (who doubled as Shorty and, in Act II, a butch bartender named Spike). Patricia Cotter's script is filled with zingers as well as some extremely poignant moments -- most notably Act II's aching confrontation between Jefferson and Gina. While I thoroughly enjoyed the opening night performance of The Daughters, the waves of enthusiastic support coming from a heavily female audience added a breath of fresh air to the evening.

Spike (Em Lee Reaves, center) gets ready to perform as Gina \
(Katie Rubin) and Ani (Olivia Levine) look on in Act II of
The Daughters (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

Performances of The Daughters continue through November 2 at the Creativity Theatre (click here for tickets).

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