This is a two part series because the more I wrote about the show, the more I realized how connected I felt to it. Part I is not a review of the show itself. It has some history, lots of opinion, and more nostalgia than necessary. So to prevent boredom, I put it in two parts. If you’re really good and read all the way to the bottom, I promise you that I’ll show you my tits. Is it a deal? Good!
I recently had the pleasure of seeing Pearls Over Shanghai at the Hypnodrome in San Francisco. If you’re in the Bay Area now, then go by and see the show yesterday. If you won’t be for awhile, well the physical space alone is worth checking out and the troupe always puts together a great show. Keep an eye open for “Blue Nights” when you get free extra content done for the love of performance and your entertainment.
Pearls Over Shanghai has a special place in my heart for reasons that include a bit of back story. Way back at the start of my undergrad I flipped through the course listings and was pleased to find a class called “Queer Theater” with Doug Holsclaw of Theater Rhinoceros fame.The course was, “A survey of queer dramatic literature and performance that looks at the social, political and artistic significance of this emerging theatrical genre. A great place to explore different kinds of art, ideas and people.”
Things would never again be the same.
I knew it would be a great class. I enjoyed theater as an audience member, stage actor, stage manager, and late night reveler taking advantage of a big space with friends. Parties in theaters are always a bit hectic and usually have hilarious results. I was also queer identified. Clearly this was a perfect class for me, especially since it started after noon. One day during a very long lecture on the San Francisco queer theater scene we got to see parts of the Cockettes documentary and The AIDS Show first performed by Theater Rhinoceros in 1984. I remember that we saw both on the same day because I was in tears by the end.
The Cockettes had all of these amazing ideas and energy. The color was explosive, the references were rich, and their power was provocative. As the clips rolled all I could think about was how much I wanted “that.” Although it felt close to home in many ways, it was intangible and so completely linked to the context from whence it came. Then there was the melancholy of watching something made purely out of beauty and lust and drugs when you know the end of the story.
As time slipped from the sexual revolution of the 60s to the disco fever of the 70s the cold water shower of the 80s was harsh and unforgiving. The unfortunate link between the two shows wasn’t just geographical. Many members of the Cockettes have sadly passed on from the effects of AIDS. Theater Rhinoceros was making art when the floor started to fall out beneath the feet of San Franciscans, New Yorkers, and Los Angelinos alike. The party had just ended and people were dying left and right. Without a rapid response from the government, the fight had to come from somewhere and the artistic communities answered the call.
The AIDS show had opened one month before I was born. I sat on my seat outting dates together. Just as I was getting ready to enter the world people were leaving it far too soon. I also believe that they were handing me vital information for myself and for others. I’ve always had fairy godmothers helping me with a glass slipper here, a condom there, and the steel to fight the good fight and to do it with flair. My generation is the first to have the word AIDS in their vocabulary for their entire life.
I’m not spiritual, I’m not religious, I’m a diehard athiest. Even so I left the class wandering a little more aimlessly that day trying to find a sign or some notice about what I was going to do with my life. I felt like there was this huge burden of debt on my back. Everything I had planned seemed ill fitting and not becomming of my nature, but where could an answer be?
A quick glance to my left gave me the answer in a sign that read: APPLY NOW TO BE AN HIV TEST COUNSELOR. It just so happens that it was the very last day that they were accepting applications. I raced through the essay questions, I pulled out a few favors to get letters of recommendation, and I dropped the whole package off five minutes before closing. I was called in for an interview and I was in a cold sweat while two veteran test counselors played good cop/bad cop with me. They tested my authenticity, my motivation, and what I could bring to the program. I was accepted as a volunteer at first, but before long I was running the whole program. Let me tell you no one plays a game of good test counselor/bad test counselor better than I do.
The average burnout rate of an HIV tester is 2 years. I left college and I tried to work a few different jobs but I went right back into the thing I loved the most. I have 5 years of testing and counseling under my belt and I have no intentions of stopping any time soon. I sit down with a stranger and I collect their stories and their fears. I also do so with the creative free spirit of the Cockettes who were so wrapped up in the drives of the mind and their lust they forgot the very political nature of their work. I try to bring the world of artistic obscenity into the world of harm reduction. I try to find a balance.
I have looked up to so many people in my path to become who I am. I found them among the queers, trannies, junkies, and whores. Each and everyone one of my fairy godmothers has told me a secret of the universe. Dome have driven me a little nuts at time, some are no longer physically present in this world, many others now depend on me for the basic banal aspects of life, but I have so much love for each and everyone of my teachers.
For the record, feathers and glitter mixed with the dramatic tone of a silver screen actress are much better ways to learn about the world than stodgy robes in a classroom. I was thrilled to hear that there was a revival of a show that is very much a part of my heart and my life and moreover it was being played at my favorite theater and very easily accessible by public transit.