Thursday, June 1, 2023

Queer Art In Tennessee

[Pictured - Bertha (Grateful Drag); Cookeville Pride & Madness of Lady Bright; Lela & Maxzine from the Vaudeville Circus & Jug Band review in Cannon County)

Pride month begins today. Queer art is in the community. 

There’s something especially sacred & galvanizing but also terrifying about Pride this year. Our local Pride, which I have missed many times due to my annual June travels, comes on the late pioneering poet Allen Ginsberg’s birthday. It is almost 3 years to the day after Cookeville’s historic BLM rally, which turned out to turn my entire life upside-down & inside-out. 

The day before our Pride, Melody Walker & Mercy Bell will drop the official release of their "Jesus Was A Drag Queen" song, which has already been making the likes & listens on TikTok, YouTube, Instagram, etc. "Jesus Was A Drag Queen" mirrors for me a poem I wrote about the queer Jesus, more than 30 years ago. More than 30 years ago, we marched on Washington for the LGBTQ rights movement, when it seemed like a time of rising hope, not hateful reactions. 

I was thrilled to learn that Melody Walker is also part of Bertha, an amazing “Grateful Drag” band that brings the queer & Deadhead communities together. Their April 29th debut at Dee’s in Nashville was the same day two punk bands & the Eggplant Faerie Players were playing a fierce, fiery activist-benefit show here in Cookietown. Sometimes you want to be in two places at once! But it was great to have Maxzine & Tom Foolery back in Cookeville. And I was happy to find that Bertha’s entire show is available on YouTube.

When I first moved to Tennessee, it was to join a rural artistic counterculture community, “in the hills & hollers,” as we would say. In a sense it was theater, too, that drew me here, as I was really following my dear friend Maxzine, who had moved down from Ann Arbor a couple of years(or was it months?) before I made the trek from Detroit. So it seems fitting to me that Maxzine & I have recently reconnected bunches, mostly in the streets of Nashville to protest the fascist GOP & support our queer & POC friends. But this past weekend I saw Maxzine in their other home, besides the streets & the rural gardens, the performance venue, juggling in many fabulous costume changes, with their collaborator Tom Foolery & the Murfreesboro band Jake Leg Stompers. Before the show Maxzine wrote me: “I am performing tonight and tomorrow, including using drag in a provocative way, given Tennessee making drag illegal in public in many cases (a law that is on hold as a judge mulls it over).”

Back in Cookeville, there is a new queer theater collective called “Friends of Oscar Wilde” that aims to produce openly LGBTQ plays, year-round. The local Pride committee has been incredibly active, well-supported, outspoken, courageous, & vibrant in face of considerable local backlash from several explicitly nazi hate groups & *some* churches (#notallchurches lol). So their new theater endeavors are such a clarion call for radical art in our community. Of course our beloved Backdoor Playhouse has been at the heart of the struggle, as one of the only venues platforming drag shows on a regular basis, after one venue was evicted and another had to close its doors for various reasons.  

The “Friends of Oscar Wilde” debut is “The Madness of Lady Bright,” directed by Mark Harry Creter & starring Matthew Melton. The play is an edgy avant-garde mental health meltdown in the style of something you would expect from Tennessee Williams. Lanford Wilson’s revolutionary pre-Stonewall text teaches us what the accumulated harm of a hostile society could do to an aging lonely neurodivergent queen. It’s beyond touching cute moralism to touch raw nerves with traumatizing truth-bomb heartbreaking beauty. It’s an emotionally psychedelic journey as the walls all collapse inside the heart-brain of our protagonist, that we as audience get to inhabit with them.   

We could say that Matthew Melton is the lead, but there are three of them. That is, in a way, it’s a one person show, but with other actors to perform the voices in their head. Matthew has thrown themselves into this role in such an immersive & all-encompassing fashion, such that the audience is invited or imposed upon to forget their butts-in-seats & just bear witness to the inner world as reality slips away.

This critic partially wanted a play of pure rainbow empowerment in these times that feel strangely pre-Stonewall, at least here in Tennessee. The riveting performance left me with more questions than answers, with a fire of love for all my queer siblings & a rage at the world that doesn’t want to know them, much less love & accept & celebrate them. After the exceptional less-than-an-hour whirlwind one-act opening-night debut, I stayed for the Q&A with cast & director, where we could really explore these issues more deeply. Matthew’s honesty, transparency, & yes joy, were all hanging out, with the jester makeup still flowing & glowing with their smiles & commentary.

I encourage everyone to see this show & to, like I needed to, set aside their PC purity code about wanting perfectly well-adjusted, happily partner, & mentally healthy queer characters to stick in the face of our local normies & haters. But like we discussed last night, this play is not for the normies, it’s for our arts & activist community & for our LGTBQ community, allies & accomplices included.

So please get to the Backdoor Playhouse tonight; Show is at 8pm Central and tickets are available at the door. Look into the EGGPLANT Faerie Players & the Jake Leg Stompers. Listen to Melody Walker, Mercy Bell, & Grateful Drag!!! Then get to Pride this Saturday at 11am in Dogwood Park or to your local Pride, wherever & when it is. 

Check out:

Jesus Was A Drag Queen: 

Check out Grateful Drag:

Tickets are available for the next Grateful Drag show in Nashville in October at the Analog:

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