Lyric Hyperion Theatere & Cafe, Los Angeles, CA
I almost didn’t go because I’d come down with some kind of physical plague along with the emotional one I had already been feeling that week, but really thankgawd I have a girlfriend who thinks it’s important for us to show up to community events in the wake of tragedy because the opposite of lonely grieving might be cabaret.
Is there anything gayer? I think I first realized I was gay while attending a weekly cabaret at the Slipper Club in Madison, Wisconsin during my senior year of college. Until then I was very Natasha Lyonne at the outset But I’m A Cheerleader, when she’s still like, “Everyone looks at other girls all the time!” Like her, I thought “everyone had those thoughts,” but the cabaret showed me that what I desired wasn’t just a trip to clamtown (which is requisite, but maybe not sufficient for gayness) but instead a more permanent residence in the sequin-covered cabaret world where camp is the very best way to communicate pathos. I wanted to live among this cheeky and earnest community with its visible belief that desire for the spotlight was what made one deserving of it, where people cheered and sang in such familial chorus.What I remember most about that Midwestern cabaret was that for each finale, the entire cast would get onstage and sing “Que Sera Sera” in this overdone way that made the lyrics —will I be pretty? will I be rich? — seem ridiculous (how hilariously heterocapitalist!)—and yearningly anxious (but like I kind of need to be sort of rich and super pretty!) at the exact same time. At the cabaret, I learned about expressing nostalgia through mockery, about using tacky overperformance as a form of worship. I heard the language there and recognized it as my mother tongue.
SORORITY, organized and hosted by Los Angeles playwright Gina Young, has re-immersed me in that language—has reintroduced the feelings that are able to be articulated and felt when queers get onstage in front of a queer audience. The series, which launched at the Lyric-Hyperion Theater in LA in April, occurring every Thursday night during that month, has reemerged as a monthly event this summer. On its Facebook page, SORORITY is described as a “queer performance k-hole” which includes “works-in-progress,” “theatrical situations,” and “summertime short shorts.” The unfinished feel is refreshing: where LA’s performance scene can sometimes feel like its requires an art school education to access, SORORITY’s performances are playful and engaging. The series is also— with its late-night start time, availability of cocktails, variety-show vibe, and abundance of bad wigs—a true cabaret.
Each SORORITY event asks performers to present work around a theme; June’s theme was Muscles.
Like I said, I didn’t want to be out. My throat was sore and anyway when I’m feeling emotional, my instinct is to hole up. But as soon as I arrived there were extra-long hugs, extra-long eye contact and I realized it was good to have come. I’d re-posted this Facebook meme someone made of a José Muñoz quotation about communal mourning: “we mourn as a ‘whole’—or put another way, as a contingent and temporary collection of fragments that is experiencing the loss of its parts.” It was good to be with the collection.
So we were all in our theater chairs and Young introduced the evening on a somber note, recognizing that everyone who’d made it out had overcome emotional obstacles in order to do so, everyone had come out of hunger. She asked us to take a moment of silence to dedicate the show to the Orlando victims. I felt strange, at first, being silent, making this dedication, as an audience member. Silence felt contrary to the spirit of cabaret. But then, the cabaret is a collective; at the cabaret, performances can only speak their queer language to an audience that’s fluent; it relies on an audience that knows how to feel melodrama. The cabaret is only a cabaret if the audience speaks back. So I tried to connect with the void—to appreciate the sacredness of this space, as all spaces are sacred in which new languages, the languages of Others, bubble up or are recognized—I tried to dedicate my spectatorship.
And here is what I saw: Word-based performances were given by the two Sorority regulars, Amanda-Faye Jimenez and Megan Auster-Rosen. Jimenez is this amazing blend of old-school fagacious queen and contemporary internet femme whose writing is full of searing cultural critique disguised as witty observation of minutiae. She read an emotional piece about her grandfather who died of Alzheimer’s, gleaning hilarious and spontaneous-feeling epiphany from childhood tragedy, such as that she hates work but loves office supplies. Auster-Rosen is a funny-sexy storyteller with an eye for the absurd (and possibly the propensity to make absurd things happen) who seems like she’d fit at The Moth, but also in the Catskills. She read a piece about her travails through the Los Angeles workout scene.
Words were also shared by SORORITY initiates Jasmine Nyende and Taran Payne. Nyende read a poem I would describe as “performative” and also “epic” that dealt with how intersections of race, gender, money, queerness, and institutionality have affected and arisen out of her relationship with her brother. Payne read an essay that questioned whether the trans bodies widely celebrated on social media actually reinforced the binary and which called for more circulation and appreciation of non-binary and genderqueer images; the essay was also an homage to the boy bands that served as early models for Payne’s own masculinity.
Other performers got physical—Juan Martin Matamoros, in sequin-shorts, sequin-Chucks, and body glitter, lifted a styrofoam barbell up and down to sound art that mapped his experiences of disidentification with workout culture, depicting the gym as both a locus of corporate body policing and a liberatory site of queer becoming. Gregory Barnett, clad only in some kind of Umbros, high-kicked and tuck-jumped in homage to Vera Ellen and Mitzi Gaynor. Says Barnett, “I was interested in the held hysteria of their torsos and the hyper ecstatic styling coming across at times as assertive. Because I was at a place of feeling joy was next to impossible, I felt my best bet was to overshoot into their lithium happy antics.”
Aerobics instructor Cynthia Rena asked the entire audience to stand and work out with her—about which I felt hesitant (I had a sore throat!), but was ultimately seriously amazed by what I can only describe as the audience’s total joy, total jouissance, total unison.
Feminist performance artist Erin Pike admitted to feeling hopeless since Orlando, and wanted to do a performance that would be “the opposite of hopelessness.” This performance ended up manifesting as serial burpees for the duration of Destiny’s Child’s “Survivor.” The audience enthusiastically cheered for the duration of Pike’s performance, and when it was clear Pike’s body was giving out—her push-ups merely gestural and her arms noodly—an audience member rose and joined Pike onstage, burpeeing energetically beside her until the song finished. This gesture made me swell with feeling— I am always trying to figure out what queerness is, to recognize moments that feel queer, and this was one. It wouldn’t have occurred to me to join Pike onstage; I was supposed to be the audience. But this audience member reminded me that sometimes solidarity is built, projects are finished, by jumping out of one’s role and into another, by recognizing when work someone is doing could be your work.
There was a full-on excerpted and condensed read-through of a play written by New York playwright Katie Liederman about teenage girl competitive bodybuilders in the 80s, in which USC Professor Karen Tongson played a bodybuilder’s BFF in a curly mullet wig, a full-body men’s swimsuit, and a leather jacket emblazoned with leather British flags, poet Raquel Gutierrez narrated in a waist-length pompadour wig, and Megan Auster-Rosen reappeared in drag as a creepy male coach.
My favorite performance, though, was the final one of the evening, by Mikki Olson, as her wrestler persona Candy Pain, with guests Dani Wassel and Machine. The performance began with Wassel and Machine in hooded boxing robes twirling giant cardboard lollipops, some combination of boxers and baton girls, flexing and growling, revving up the crowd. And then Olson, a tall, muscular femme with apple cheeks and a thick, waist-length auburn mane, emerged growling in a wrestling outfit. Wassel and Machine jumped and cheered, mirroring Olson as she squatted atop balloons labeled “guns” and “racism,” bursting them, and again as she karate-chopped huge signs reading “patriarchy” and “homophobia.” The energy in the room during this performance is impossible to describe except to say that, at the end, when the performers formed a standing human pyramid and Wassel, the pyramid’s top, raised a sign declaring “The End,” I believed, for that moment, that this is how patriarchy ends: with collaboration, with a stage, with giant swirly pink lollipops, with karate kicks and cheerleader moves, with growling and cheers, with camp, with an audience.
Of course, the cabaret is aspirational—it’s a temporary creation of a world in which we are extra hilarious, extra hot, hanging on each others’ every word, in which we’re celebratory and unified and understand each other completely. But it matters to aspire, to create this temporary world, to get together and see each other and speak our language.
Sorority will take place again June 21 and August 18 at 10 p.m. at the Lyric-Hyperion Theater.
Sam Cohen lives in Los Angeles. She has a chapbook on Birds of Lace and one forthcoming on eohippus labs.