When I see plays that unearth and uplift the lives of people who have been systematically oppressed due to race and LGBTQ issues, I am always grateful to be welcomed into these stories as a white, cishetero woman who does not understand the nuances of the experiences I may see on stage. Before sitting down with my program to see the preview performance of CompanyOne’s production of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Wig Out, the only exposure I had to the culture of drag balls was watching RuPaul’s Drag Race and absorbing drag ball slang as I scroll past tweets and memes on the internet – an experience that was appropriately taken into account by the production’s dramaturgs, who deftly brought drag ball history to light in the program notes for “normies” like me.
I was surprised and, at the same time, not surprised that I had not heard of the “Pansy Craze,” or that drag balls date back to as early as the Prohibition age. As I read through the rest of the program notes, I thought about how much I see drag culture represented in mainstream media, but how little I, and in turn the media, actually know about the LGBTQ youth and other people who live this reality on a daily basis. Wig Out not only places audiences in the middle of the mentorship, the community, and the struggles of growing up in a drag house, but also gives voices to characters who all experience queerness differently.
I couldn’t help but harken back to the performance I saw of Jomama Jones’ Black Light at Joe’s Pub, which explored these themes in a cabaret-style performance, but also felt just as intimate and urgent as McCraney’s play. I am curious about how stories like McCraney’s and Jones’ are both able to tap into the nuances of gender expression and allow for meaningful experiences for audiences who can see themselves represented on stage, and also for audiences who are seeing these bodies on stage for the first time, and if that means a change in the mainstream is underway.
Everyone loves a good party – and most of the second act of Wig Out gave the audience the opportunity to cheer and applaud as lights flashed, music blared, and hair blew in the wind. I loved witnessing other members of the audience lead the way in this for those who were more unfamiliar with the celebratory nature of the ball. Similarly, it felt great to see people laugh and react to jokes that I did not understand, because I could see the recognition in their faces hearing references that acknowledged things that only those within the community would get. But when the lights and glitter are stripped away for the rest of the play, in scenes that dive more deeply into personal relationships between the characters, a beautiful depth remains in them as people who are all, at the same time, naïve, wise, fed up, and longing for connection.
I recognized a pattern as each character began a monologue with the phrase, “My grandmother wore a wig.” This element allowed for the characters to speak out about finding power their identity despite complicated mixtures of support and disdain from friends and family members. It also ran parallel with a sense of lineage of how presenting gender expression through one’s appearance is taught to us first by our family. Black Light also speaks to this, with Jomama’s countless stories about her grandmother – including how she passed down her rifle and her flashlight as a message to always bear witness to what is going on within the darkness of oppression. The characters in these two plays are all dealing with their many intersections of identity, and the plays invite audiences who are outsiders to drag culture to realize that there are histories of pain that are ever-present within the lives of the people the media likes to celebrate when it feels like a party, but not always when the truth of their struggles are acknowledged.
No matter one’s experience with the queer community, the themes of family lineage and finding one’s identity are universal experiences that anyone can relate to. McCraney and Jones both were able to dive deeply into a specific experience by acknowledging collective truths, including broader questions about spirituality and the purpose of humanity. I am fascinated that both of these plays had such a clear relationship to the celestial, which later I learned was about how the playwrights tapped into themes of Afromysticism, goddess mythology, and divination. Both productions had moments that invited audience members to join hands in prayer, to recognize the power of looking someone next to you in the eyes and seeing that you are both a part of the same community in that moment.
These elements, both in their own contexts, transitioned the pieces of theatre from an experience one is watching to an event one is participating in. So when the playwrights later hit the nail on the head of calling out systems of oppression in America, the audience can really feel that hope and community are some of the only ways of picturing a brighter future. Both plays look onwards – with Venus taking over as the new mother of the House of Light, signifying a new era, and with Jomama leading the audience with her invocation, “What if I told you…,” which called for acknowledgement that light can exist within the darkness.
With hope for the future in mind, I left both performances feeling refreshed and invigorated to keep doing my work as an civic-minded artist to engage with stories of people who are underrepresented and spread the word about their storytelling. I am grateful for artists who welcome people like me into the act of sharing their vulnerability, despite how their stories are not really for me at all. I have learned what it means to bear witness to something that is not my own experience – that by seeing it and recognizing it, I am committing to changing the definition of “mainstream.” As Oskar Eustis said in his program note, “Will we affirm the better angels of the American spirit, and embrace a country that is inclusive and pluralistic and equal, or will we revert to the savage tribalism that was also present at the founding of our country, built as it was on slavery, genocide, and racism?” This inquiry is common across a lot of the plays that I read lately, and I hope that it continues to pervade in the productions that I see being realized in Boston.
 From the program for Black Light at Joe’s Pub at The Public Theater, NYC.