The unruly brain and bad habits of a writer, actor, and grilled cheese sandwich-enthusiast.
“What’s happening to the Lex is absolutely a part of the larger changes that are happening in SF. We are closing because we can’t run a sustainable business in the Mission anymore because of the economics of the neighborhood and the diminished presence of queer women living in it. Another real issue is economic gender inequality. Why is there only one lesbian bar when there are so many gay male bars?”
– Lila Thirkield, founder of The Lexington bar, interviewed about its closing, 48 Hills (23 October 2014)
I’m not a fan of Armistead Maupin.
Look, I get that the guy’s stories are acclaimed, that he helped bring LGBTQ+ stories into the mainstream, and that he’s a “local legend”, blah-blah-blah. But I’m not a fan of the stories or the man himself. Not the man because everyone I’ve ever met who’s met him has described him as the most narcissistic prig you’ll ever meet. Not the stories because they’ve always been tales of a whitewashed, milquetoast, Wonder Bread version of SF. Maupin isn’t from SF originally. But then, neither was Brian Freeman, a Gay Black man who came here in the ‘70s and lamented that the “revolutionary” Castro frequently resembled an Aryan parade.
Mind you, that doesn’t mean his stories are bad in and of themselves (I’m actually fond of The Night Listener and its film adaptation). But as someone born (yes, born) and raised in SF, Armistead Maupin represents a problem as old as The City itself: its stories are always told by those who come here, not those from here. Be it self-important authors, yuppies & techies, or hypocritical op-eds in the New York Times, “The Story of San Francisco” is constantly being written by those passing through, not those setting down stakes.
Having said that, I don’t know if Patricia Cotter is actually from SF – none of her official info says one way or the other. Nevertheless, if there are two details she gets right in The Daughters – her six-decade story of SF’s evolving lesbian population – the first is the feeling of being swept up in the tide of change, rather than flowing with the current. The second is the old Jean-Baptiste Karr quote: “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose (The more things change, the more they remain the same).” We’ve seen this pattern before, which makes its repetition all more irritating
Gina (Martha Brigham – filling in on-book for the injured Katie Rubin) laments the closing of The Lexington the way I lamented the closing of Marcus Books, Famerbrown, and Sam Jordan’s Bar in Bayview (the oldest Black-owned bar in SF).
But I’m jumping ahead. Before we even meet Gina and her 2014 gal-pals, we meet their 1955 equivalents. And when I say “equivalents”, I mean just that: the aforementioned French quote proves true in this play as the characters and situations remain the same, with only the fashion, technology, and accoutrement changing. Mal and her longtime partner Peggy (Erin Anderson) have founded the real-life organizaion The Daughters of Bilitis, an organization focused on civil rights for lesbians, out of their SF apartment. Unfortunately, Mal appears to be the only one who didn’t want this meeting to be an out-and-out party, which everyone else does. This includes ingenue Evelyn (Olivia Levine), suit-and-tie-wearing Shorty and Griff (Em Lee Reaves and Molly Shaiken, respectively), and lone Black woman Vivian (Jeunée Simon). Most of the women came for a party, but live in fear that every knock on the door could be the police. In the most conservative decade of 20th century United States, their mere existence is a risk.
We then jump ahead to the aforementioned 2014 closing of The Lex. Mal has become Gina, Peggy has become Natalie, and along with their friend Leslie (Vivian), they’re here for a final send-off of SF’s last lesbian bar. Spike (Shorty) is slinging drinks behind the counter as young Ani (Natalie), who doesn’t take to the term “lesbian”, effortlessly pulls off what her fellow patrons struggle at. And this is all before Griff returns as Gina’s ex, the former-Jessica-now-Jefferson.
The best thing I can say about Cotter and her characters is that they feel real to the point where one feels as if one in the audience feels like they’re intruding on a private moment, even as the latter-half takes place in public. There’s a sincerity to these folks that I found greatly missing from, say, Terrence McNally’s Some Men. (And no, I don’t say that to pit one LGBT playwright against another – I hate when people do that for Black writers. I mention McNally’s play because it obviously treads similar territory.) Vivian’s private moment on the balcony with Mal, in the which the former both passes on civil rights advice and tells of her “beard” husband in NY, holds just as much weight as the little piano jam taking place on the inside. Similarly, Gina’s concerns of those exclusively identified as lesbians being culturally erased actually fits in with her stand-off attitude towards Jefferson’s recent transition: they’re things out of her control which have an impact on her own identity. For Christ’s sake – she’s in a lesbian bar with a girl name “Ani” who has no idea who the fuck Ani DiFranco is. Of course she’s pissed off!
If the script falters, it’s because Cotter clearly has an affinity for the words and can fall down a rabbit hole every now and then. Mind you, the dialogue is good (my favorite might be Vivian’s clap-back at Evelyn’s “compliment” about Vivian “look[ing] like Dorothy Dandridge”), but occasional conversations will get political to the point where they feel like a televised back-and-forth rather than casual speech. Plus, the finale seems to draw itself out longer than it should when it could easily end a good ten-or-so minutes sooner. But, overall, the script works by keeping the characters front-and-center.
And they’re kept there under the guidance of director Jessica Holt. I’ve worked with her before, and here she keeps the action at a steady clip, even when the scenario stretches things out a bit too long. Holt knows the impact of moments such as Griff’s sudden wardrobe change at the end of Act I, as well as the goofiness of a would-be bar-top fight. She steers the cast towards grounded realism, despite the occasionally outlandish turns. It’s why the knock on the door in 1955 evokes a genuine sense dread followed by relief.
Speaking of her cast, she got a good one. It’s impossible to talk about the show without mentioning Martha Brigham’s last-minute on-book replacement casting in the roles of Mal/Gina. These two are the closest the play has to “main characters”, so to lose your lead actor so soon is a major blow to the production. Yet, Brigham was less an actor reading onstage so much as characters who hold onto “scripts” as a form of neuroses – and I say that as a compliment. She moves from focused to bewildered to angry to sad, all without once letting on that she’d only recently stepped into the role. And, again, she does all this whilst holding the script in her hand the entire time.
Actor Em Lee Reaves threatens to steal the show with their portrayals of Shorty and Spike, both characters that suggest queer version of Cosmo from Singin’ in the Rain. They and Molly Shaiken (Griff/Jefferson) prove that finding non-binary actors isn’t nearly as difficult as lazy casting directors suggest. Erin Anderson is a wonderful stabilizing presence Mal/Gina’s partners, Peggy/Natalie. In both cases, Anderson is the more relaxed “yin” to Brigham’s characters’ “yang”, the former able to grasp the more social aspects behind the latter’s political motivations. (If you don’t have someone to keep you balanced like that, your relationship is likely to fail.) Another welcome presence is that of Olivia Levine as Evelyn/Ani. She perfectly contrasts the contradictions of lesbian identity over the decades: once naïve and awkward trying to find its bearings, now refusing to be bound by any “old-school” restrictions. And I’ve both worked with and praised Jeunée Simon so often that I’m sure she’s sick of me saying it (but yes, she’s really good here, too).
If there’s one tech member I have to praise, it would have to be Randy Wong-Westbrooke. For lack of a better term, the sets are “very San Francisco”. I wasn’t around in ’55 (incidentally, the year my father was born), but I could easily imagine an SF apartment having sheer maroon curtains with “floating” frames in front of them. I also never visited the Lex – I just wasn’t the key demo – but there’s a look to SF dive bars – be it The Saloon, The Tempest, or Lucky 13 – that is immediately recognizable, and Wong-Westbrooke recreates it to perfection in Act II. The trash on the floor, the jukebox, the stickers – oh, the stickers. You’ll see the most of them on the toilet piece under Chris Lundahl’s lights. And you might not immediately notice Lana Palmer’s sounds, but you will definitely remember the “Whoo!” girl who accompanies all of Spike’s speeches.
The Daughters is a fine example of how a story is more universal the more specific it is. Cotter has written for television a great deal, and I have no doubt that if she’d presented this work to a major network, they’d have given a million notes all revolving around “adding more guys” to make the show “more appealing”. (An Act II dig at The ‘L’ Word comes off as an explicit Cotter jab towards mainstream US tv.) But it’s the specifics that make these characters memorable. Give them whatever political interpretation you wish – both acts see them debating identity politics and the use of pronouns – but trying to make them fit into a specific box would be wrong. Hell, half their journey is them figuring out where they fit in a rapidly-changing world.
I’m not pessimistic enough to subscribe to the “end of San Francisco” talk so prevalent these days, but I will say that this play has been much more representative of my hometown than any recent op-ed. With a skilled director and a talented cast, Patricia Cotter’s play almost effortlessly creates the sort of lasting identity its characters are afraid of losing.
The Daughters is scheduled to run until the 2nd of November at the Children’s Creativity Theater in San Francisco.
The show runs roughly 2 hours with a single 15-min. intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.
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