Review: Was Abraham Lincoln homosexual? A brand new play in L.A. imagines his life by means of a queer lens
By method of introduction, Roger Q. Mason, a playwright and performer who makes use of the pronouns they/them, writes on their web site: “I am a Black, Filipinx, plus-sized, gender non-conforming, queer artist of color. My work employs the lens of history to chip away at the cultural biases that divide rather than unite us.”
This would function wonderful description not solely of Mason’s character, Taffeta, but additionally of Mason’s play “Lavender Men,” which is having its world premiere at Skylight Theatre in a handsomely wrought manufacturing directed by Lovell Holder. Taffeta, the glowing emcee of this historic “fantasia” who makes use of she/her pronouns within the play, employs her queer magic to convey Abraham Lincoln (Pete Ploszek) again from the useless to relive his relationship with a legislation clerk named Elmer E. Ellsworth (Alex Esola) to whom he’s passionately if discreetly devoted.
The promise Taffeta holds out is that Lincoln and Elmer will get the possibility to rewrite their ending. How may historical past be completely different if these two males might specific their tender emotions for one another? If they might outrun their disgrace and embrace the love that dared not communicate its identify in nineteenth century America or for a lot of the twentieth, for that matter.
Larry Kramer lengthy contended that Lincoln was homosexual and certainly even wrote about it in his novel “The American People: Volume 1, Search for My Heart.” Mason proudly cuts their very own path on this pink-washed custom.
Here Lincoln is aghast on the over-the-top mannerisms of Taffeta, not understanding why this “fop” has summoned him right into a world that now not follows the outdated guidelines of gender, race and sexuality. But Elmer, the item of his obsessive consideration, is charmed by Taffeta’s insouciant freedom and so a theatrical recreation ensues.
Lincoln performs himself earlier than turning into president, when he’s a dourly married legal professional in Springfield, Ill., dreaming of a greater life for his nation however unsure of the extent of his ambition or the efficacy of his political expertise. Elmer performs himself as a formidable younger cadet who, after his goals of turning into a basic are quashed due to his brief stature, is educated in Lincoln’s workplace within the legislation.
When Elmer asks who Taffeta will play, she replies, “Everything you’re not.” The roles she takes on embody Mary Todd Lincoln, a Black workplace maid and a chandelier. But Taffeta is at all times close by, resisting the whitewashing of the historic document, remembering Lincoln’s half-baked concept of sending previously enslaved individuals to Africa after the top of the Civil War (no matter the place they have been born), sympathizing with love-starved Mary Todd Lincoln and inspiring the sparks of queer like to burn brightly earlier than it’s too late.
Taffeta is fancifully engaged in historic revisionism, but it surely’s her personal historical past that’s as a lot at stake as Lincoln’s. As she explains early on to the sixteenth president, “You are the beginning of a trail of hate that leads to me feeling like nothing.”
These incarnations of Lincoln and Elmer are reshaped by her creativeness. Lincoln, famously unattractive, is now a looker who’d be exhaustingly in demand at homosexual circuit events. Elmer is reconceived as a “muscle twink.” The changes are a method for Taffeta to work out her personal emotions about being bodily marginalized as a queer particular person of coloration whose physique doesn’t conform to stereotypical beliefs.
“Lavender Men,” unwinding on a set by Stephen Gifford that appears like an vintage cupboard of wonders, feels at occasions like a recreation through which the caprice of the inventor hasn’t but settled right into a dependable sample. The playfulness drags partially as a result of Lincoln and Elmer, although sensitively carried out by Ploszek and Esola, are hardly ever permitted moments of autonomous life.
Immured in reticent modesty, Ploszek’s Lincoln appears perpetually on the verge of an erotic catharsis that by no means fairly arrives. Esola’s Elmer gazes delightedly on the prospect of a liberated future whereas holding quick to the destiny that can consign him to an early grave as one of many first notable casualties of the Civil War.
The play, nevertheless, is Taffeta’s fantasy. And Taffeta at all times is aware of greatest, even when buffeted by the cruelest of inside voices — the mocking, preying, sadistic remarks of internalized racism, homophobia and fatphobia. How may the story broaden if there have been a thoughts to problem her difficult mind?
“Lavender Men,” co-produced by the Playwrights’ Arena firm, picks up energy when it veers into efficiency artwork and Mason theatricalizes the character’s visceral self-hatred. At one level, reeling from rejection, Taffeta drowns her sorrow in an apple pie — the sloppiness of the scene being a eager supply of its pathos.
Mason’s rawness isn’t dramatically seamless, but it surely’s bracing to witness nonetheless. Nothing is held again in what in the end quantities to a form of stage exorcism.
A daring theatrical expertise is on show at Skylight Theatre. Evoking the mingled visions of Suzan-Lori Parks (“Topdog/Underdog”), Jeremy O. Harris (“Slave Play”) and Michael R. Jackson (“A Strange Loop”), Mason dangers the fearless self-exposure of a efficiency artist like Karen Finley, who equally places her personal physique on the road in her work.
See “Lavender Men” earlier than it closes at Skylight (or on-line, now that digital performances are underway) if you happen to’d wish to expertise an artist getting ready to one thing fabulous.
Where: Skylight Theatre, 1816½ N. Vermont Ave., L.A.
When: 8:30 p.m. Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays, 7:30 p.m. Mondays. Ends Sept. 4.
Tickets: Starts at $20
Contact: (213) 761-7061, lavendermenplayla.com
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes
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