Playwright and composer Max Vernon’s The View UpStairs careens dizzily through a soundtrack of glam-rock, soul, gospel, Latin rhythms, and alt-folk ballads.
But North Raleigh Arts and Creative Theatre’s artistic director Tim Locklear is sober and succinct when asked why he put the 2017 off-Broadway musical on his company’s calendar: “History repeats itself if we don’t know about it.”
Fifty years later, one thing’s clear: no one wants the historic massacre that took place in 1973 at the UpStairs Lounge repeated.
In the 1970s, when most of the show takes place, the second-story nightclub on the southern edge of the French Quarter was a nerve center for blue-collar gay culture in New Orleans. Since it was also the home of the city’s Metropolitan Community Church—a pro-LGBTQ Christian denomination that began just five years before in Los Angeles—the UpStairs Lounge was a literal as well as metaphorical sanctuary for its racially and sexually disparate clientele.
But despite the Big Easy’s reputation as a liberal, laissez-faire city, organized civic gay purges had previously taken place in the 1950s and ’60s. The UpStairs had become a rare, safe space for gays who were still subject to arrest, loss of employment, homelessness, and even deportation under statutes criminalizing not only drag and public displays of gay behavior but employing and renting property to “sex perverts.”
“I remember. You could be arrested for simply walking with a quote-unquote twitch in your walk,” Locklear says. “If I was still being spit on and having bricks thrown at me in the late 1980s for simply going into a gay bar in Fayetteville, in 1973 it was much, much worse.”
“Every time they left the four walls of the UpStairs, they were in danger,” says actor Amir Feinberg, who plays the musical’s central character, Wes. “They were worried for their livelihoods, their lives, their families.”
That danger found them out on Sunday, June 24, when parties unknown set fire to the building during a beer bash after church services at the club. Thirty-two people died in the conflagration. It was not only the largest fire in the history of New Orleans; for the next 42 years, it would remain the deadliest attack on a gay club in the United States, until the mass shooting at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub in 2016. Historical research following that atrocity focused new attention on the UpStairs arson—and prompted Vernon to write the musical.
In it, Wes, a snarky, present-day queer fashion designer who’s desperate to make a break outside of New York, goes out on a limb to jump-start his brand by buying the run-down, damaged building where the UpStairs had been. As he lingers after the realtor hands him the keys, ghosts and echoes from the past repossess the property, and plunge Wes into a vivid time he has no knowledge of.
“The whole show is a confrontation with the past,” Feinberg notes. Wes has to learn a lot in a hurry—including how much the behaviors he takes for granted as a modern-day queer place the people he’s among in jeopardy. The past also has him reflect on the comparatively soulless commodifications of the present, where he sings “gay marriage is now legal / though in four years, who can say?”
Still, Vernon’s driving, upbeat songs including “Some Kind of Paradise,” “Completely Overdone,” and “Sex on Legs” make this musical a kaleidoscopic commemoration and celebration of the patrons and performers at the club.
For Feinberg, the importance of The View UpStairs comes in reconnecting gay generations of the present with a history that isn’t taught in public forums. “Because it’s moments like this, when we forget that we came from, that we start having things like bills being introduced in different state legislatures to ban mentioning the word ‘gay’ in schools, drag in Tennessee, and gender-affirming care for kids.”
In light of those developments, we call The View UpStairs a period piece at our own peril.
In a rumpled blue work shirt daubed with the paint of his trade, the agitated, gaunt and aging artist stands looking through round silver spectacles at his creation. Wholly focused and unguarded, his eyes disclose a palpable vulnerability: worry, concern, and frustration, tinged with more than a little fear. “Come on, come on,” he cajoles in the silence, “what does it need?”
When his young assistant dares to offer a single word, “red,” the painter mutters, “I wasn’t talking to you,” before he wheels about, enraged, and yells at him, “DON’T YOU EVER DO THAT AGAIN!”
We had missed signature moments like these of quicksilver psychological drama at point-blank range since the 2018 closing of Manbites Dog Theater, the award-winning company that, over a 31-year run, set indispensable standards for artistic and social integrity in independent theater. The regional community of practice has frequently struggled to maintain both in the time since they transitioned to a philanthropic organization, even with the funds they’ve generously granted.
Ticket sales were brisk when RedBird Theater announced it would produce Manbites director and cofounder Jeff Storer’s return to the independent scene after a five-year hiatus, in a staging of RED, John Logan’s biography, pensive and explosive by turns, of mercurial 20th-century abstract expressionist Mark Rothko.
Interest intensified when we learned the show would mark a reunion with noted longtime collaborators Sonya Drum, who would design the set and props, and lighting designer Chuck Catotti. Anchoring the production: veteran actor Derrick Ivey, who racked up four five-star reviews from the INDY’s critics during his years at Manbites.
Saying the least, expectations were high. Frequently they are met and occasionally surpassed in this compelling production.
Under Storer’s direction Ivey probes, in extensive detail, the proposition that great art often comes in—and out of—damaged packaging. The theatrical impasto of the Rothko they’ve created gives depth to the character’s contradictory dimensions, setting an artist’s ego that is tyrannical at times alongside poignant moments of fundamental self-doubt.
In Logan’s script, Rothko struggles to create the “Seagram Murals,” late-stage works that reflect his own struggles, and that of our culture, between darkness and life—not light—as conflicting colors shimmer and vibrate from an already muted palette. The play’s discourse is a coercive master class, frequently delivered under fire-hose pressure, for his young assistant, a rising New York painter named Ken.
But RED would hardly be among Storer’s best work if it didn’t seek to raise new and pointed questions out of the 2009 text. Casting Trevon Carr, a young Black actor, as Ken, causes us to re-see and reevaluate more than their turbulent relationship.
The superstructure of privilege and gatekeeping historically inherent in visual art is exposed and interrogated when a white Rothko berates a Black artist, “Where have you earned the right to exist here with me and these things you don’t understand?”
The line lands differently earlier when Rothko opines, “To be civilized is to know where you belong in the continuum of your art and your world.”
In 1959, a Black artist’s knowledge of their supposed place in both entities would necessarily exceed Rothko’s grasp.
It’s a lot to ask any actor to match Ivey’s work at full intensity, and on the production’s second night a clearly talented Carr was still calibrating his claims to space on stage, and the velocity required to counter Rothko’s boorish excesses. Elsewhere, his Ken resonated with understated but growing confidence and certitude.
You have to watch the quiet ones. Ken’s ultimate and wordless assessment of Rothko—as a teacher and a cautionary lesson—serves the famous painter back his most famous aphorism, with top spin: silence is so accurate, after all.
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