Friday, July 8, 2011

On Being Fabulous: Theatre and Gay People

by Clarence Coo

A fiction writer asked me recently, “What is it with theatre and gay people?” She had noticed a correlation and was curious.  She had meant no malice, as one were casually asking, “What is it with summertime and lightning bugs?” or “What is it with growing old and getting chronic back pain?” Of course there are gay people who read and write novels, and gay people who watch and produce film. But the writer posing the question wanted to know… just what is it exactly with gay people being into theatre?

Alas, despite being a gay person in the theatre myself, I didn’t have an answer.

A few days later, a bill legalizing same-sex marriage was passed in New York and I attended the celebratory Pride march in Manhattan that weekend. We cheered for legislators who had voted for the bill. We cheered for couples who had waited decades for this moment. We cheered for costumes and floats of extraordinary engineering. Then above the noise of the crowd, I heard a fellow bystander exclaim a word of approval that, for reasons now lost to the history of etymology, is commonly used among gay people. The word was “fabulous.”

And there amid the joyous theatricality of the parade, I began to think about the word "fabulous" and wondered if that is what connects gay people to theatre. “Fabulous” in its normal usage indicates a high level of praise. But it is a praise of a complex flavor, as  it is related to the verb “fabulate” (from the Latin fabula or fable). To "fabulate" is to concoct a lie so believable that it seduces like a good story. To be "fabulous" is to have the power of myth.

That is theatre: actors speaking words that are not true that become true only because the audience has chosen to believe. For gay people who've had to lie or censor themselves through their childhood, the theatre can be a protective retreat and a powerful release. It is a space in which a stunted reality can fully bloom.

With the fabulous in mind, I went home and began rereading plays that commented on and were shaped by gayness. These were also the plays that formed my very understanding of what theatre could do. The first one I chose off my bookshelf was Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: Millennium Approaches, a play first produced in 1991 in the Bay Area. Its subtitle A Gay Fantasia on National Themes is explicit about the homosexual flights of fancy contained within.

And there, among the very first scenes of the play, the word “fabulous” is spoken by one of the characters, followed by a reference to theatre: “Fabulous. Best thing on Broadway.” It’s Roy Cohn expressing his opinion of the musical Cats. And towards the end of the play, adopting the same word that had praised dancing Jellicle felines, an incantation is intoned summoning the unimaginable future, one that incorporates gay people into the national consciousness: "the Messenger comes, trailing orbs of light, fabulous, incipient."

When an Angel finally crashes through the ceiling, whether lowered by visible wires, or wheeled in on a ladder by stagehands, or simply directed to walk across a high platform, the audience is already believing in the power of the fabulous.

The second play I reread was also set in 1980s New York, in a city unprepared for and ravaged by the AIDS epidemic. But Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart is a different kind of play, not a fantasia at all. The adjective in the title, “normal,” insists on the dignity of the everyday and the universal. While Kushner's play revels in fantasy as an escape, Kramer's naturalism grounds itself in the harsh facts, statistics and evidence of a society’s failures. The word “fabulous” isn't uttered at all in the play.

However, I was struck in my rereading by how Kramer closes his play with an act in a hospital room that was, at the time of the play’s premiere in 1985, preposterous. It was an act equally fantastic as an angel crashing through the ceiling. And though the first time I read the play was a decade past its initial production, I remember how my chest almost burst from yearning as my adolescent imagination lacked the capacity to conceive that such an act could ever be ordinary. The Normal Heart ends with a gay wedding.

So I think to my own play and ask myself the question that all writers must wrestle with: is my work fabulous?

Beautiful Province (Belle Province) is about two characters unable to deal with the messiness of sexuality who retreat, through language, into a world of their own creation. They convince themselves they are speaking French to each other, though the words coming out of their mouths are in English. They travel by car across highways but pretend they are journeying backwards into time, back to when North America was still a New World and bare as a blank stage. The play is their shared hallucination.

Of course, all theatre is a shared hallucination. In it all things are possible and that is why it's fabulous.

Beautiful Province (Belle Province) by Clarence Coo is part of the 34th Annual Bay Area Playwrights Festival. For more on this play and others in the festival visit

1 comment:

EM Lewis said...

A fabulous post! I saw Angels earlier this year, and am seeing "The Normal Heart" tomorrow -- I'll carry these thoughts into the theater with me. Wish I could see Belle Province!