Judy Garland is the patron saint of the gay rights movement. Muzzle her famously dewy elocution of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," even burn down her stable of MGM-financed frocks. Judy was the mother of a revolution.
Believe it or not, her death on June 22, 1969, proved instrumental in this country's first gay rights uprising. The night of Judy's funeral was, by all accounts, hot and muggy in New York City. The heat, coupled with a brilliant full moon, brought thousands of mourners out of seclusion and into gay nightclubs encircling Sheridan Square. Judy's devotees were drag queens and kings, plainclothes lesbians and gays. Some came to reminisce. Others just wanted to forget. What's ringingly clear after all these years is the unrest that gripped these people. The area was a tinderbox of emotions.
The spark finally came at 1:20 a.m., when a group of N.Y.C. police officers busted through the doors of the Stonewall Inn. The cabaret was in full swing, but the raid was an all-too-familiar routine—the cops barge in, harass the patrons and arrest a few fairies. Only this time, the fairies didn't feel like taking any shit.
A butch lesbian beaned a cop with a beer bottle. In a flash, everyone in the bar piled on, throwing blows, chairs, bobby pins, whatever was at hand, at the surprised officers. The mêlée spilled out onto the streets. Soon all the bars had emptied, with a mass of drag queens in full makeup on the front lines. It was the first time anyone, anywhere, had fought homosexual persecution out in the open. The Stonewall Riots ignited in full technicolor. The gay rights movement had itself a grand entrance—befitting of a queen, naturally.
Here we are, 30 years later, and no one seems to have heard of it. You can almost hear Judy's ghostly, drunken slur on the winds of all the change Stonewall has brought about. “You ingrates!"
Spectral rattling aside, those who do remember Stonewall try to keep another set of Judy's bon mots in mind: "Always be a first-rate version of yourself, instead of a second-rate version of somebody else."
This is the parable at the core of Revolting Drag Queens: The Stonewall Story. The Dolls, headed by Matthew Bubb and Kenneth Ansloan (though you may know them by their drag names, Geneva Convention and Tequila Mockingbyrd) with director Russell Maynor, have fashioned a riotous rendition of the events leading up to and during the Stonewall Riots. All three men sat down with the Alibi after a rehearsal at the Vortex to set the scene.
This show seems darker than your other shows.
Matthew: It's one of the very first things we've ever done that isn't parody. And this was taking a real slice of history and putting our own spin on it, which was very fun. We've always been fascinated with the Stonewall period, we've always been fascinated by Judy Garland. And we actually have a Judy Garland, though she has not yet come to one rehearsal (eyes the others)—just like the real Judy! (they laugh) But I'm very pleased with the way it's turned out.
The period demands a certain seriousness but you're doing it in a way that's lighthearted.
Matthew: Yes, and certainly with our audience we don't want to scare anyone away thinking we're doing some devious documentary. (Lowers voice to James Earl Jones timbre) Stonewall.
What was it that brought you to write and stage a piece on Stonewall?
Kenneth: It's such a fascinating period in our history—and not that often done. So it's wide open. We celebrate gay pride in June and it's because of Stonewall. But a lot of the people who were at our Pride booth were coming up and saying, "What's Stonewall?" It just surprises me, that. To me it's like saying, "Who's George Washington?" (they laugh)
Matthew: It's because you're gay.
Russell: I think one of the things that makes this historical story lend itself to theater is that it's a classic story of the triumph of the underdog against a larger force of oppression, and in that sense it's very universal. And just this time, it's men in dresses who are the underdogs, who are the heroes.
Kenneth: You went from 100 people who were fighting for equality ... to like 500 organizations and thousands and thousands of people.
Russell: To me, the contrast of drag queens fighting against armed police officers is just so huge and shocking and out of the ordinary, and at such a time in history. It's exciting to imagine that going down, and then three days of riots erupting out of that, and then a whole movement erupting out of that. One group of people living in the extreme, dressing however they want to dress, living under the iron fist of the law and fighting back. Throwing lipstick or quarters.
Kenneth: They were throwing lipstick tubes and bobby pins. There were just so many flying at them! (laughs)
Russell: And then it worked. It turned the tide. There was something so intense in their reaction to this oppression that it worked.
The play is set over several days. Will the characters be followed in and out of drag?
Russell: There's definitely going to be moments where you do see the person underneath the makeup and the dress. There's a lot of nuance in character in this—you have a gay man as a man, a gay man in a dress and then a gay man taking on the persona of a woman. Within one character there are a lot of characters. I've said to Matt and Kenn that they've obviously performed in drag for many years, but this is the first time they've ever played drag queens on stage.
Kenneth: We're always doing female roles. This is the first time we're doing men as drag queens.
Do you have to play it differently?
Kenneth: You have to play it very differently. When we are in costume I think it's going to be a lot of fun—playing it up where you get to be feminine and then the contrast when you're a man and walking around like a man in a dress.
Matthew: I won't be as worried about keeping my balance on heels. (laughs) If I walk around a little stiffly, who cares?