Father, mother, children. The image of the perfect nuclear family. But images can be misleading.
Sometimes they are just an illusion, a complete fabrication designed to simulate the real thing. That is the primary purpose of the drag ball community, where young gay men, from different “houses”, walk the runway in competition with one another, in a range of various feminine and masculine guises through categories of simulated “realness.”
It is also the central premise behind Wig Out!, an engaging new Off Broadway play now showing at The Vineyard Theatre in New York.
Wig Out! tells the story of two rival houses on the eve of a ball and the interwoven lives of the people who inhabit them. These are houses less in the physical sense but more spaces where a house mother, father and “the children” gather to plan their ball performances, while doling out love, discipline, mutual support and more than a little “shade” and manipulation.
The House of Light is led by Lucian (Erik King, of tv’s Dexter), a powerful, masculine, Svengali-like figure, with a profound sense of entitlement. House mother is Rey-Rey (Nathan Lee Graham), a legend in the ball community who can somberly recall the days when the house was nearly lost to AIDS. Their children are Ms. Nina (Clifton Oliver), Venus (Joshua Cruz) and Deity (Glenn Davis), the house DJ, whose own masculinity seems to pose a threat to Lucian.
Their rivals from The House of Di’Abolique have challenged House of Light to a Cinderella Ball, in which they are expected to prepare and perform that same day. Serena (Daniel T. Booth), a larger-than-life, over-the-top drag queen, is the mother there, while Loki (Sean Patrick Doyle) is her ex-House of Light little toady.
Rounding out the cast are The Fates 3—a scene stealing Greek chorus of real female members of the House of Light—made up of Fay (Rebecca Naomi Jones), Fate (Angela Grovey) and Faith (McKenzie Frye). Andre Holland plays Eric, a young man not entirely comfortable with his own sexuality, who ends up sharing feelings with Ms. Nina.
This mix of drama-filled situations and personalities is the brainchild of Tarell Alvin McCraney, one of the bright new lights in the theatre community, who gave us last season’s The Brothers Size at The Public Theater.
Ironically, the play is billed as a comedy yet it touches on serious subject matter.
People join houses and create a family structure often because they’ve been disowned by their biological ones. That fact is alluded to by several characters who offer soliloquies that begin with the phrase, “My grandmother wore a wig…” They then proceed to tell stories of childhood masquerading in women’s attire, indicative of the fact that they knew early on they were different from other kids. We can only assume this fact wasn’t well received at home.
Rey-Rey paints the tragic figure of the aging drag queen. When your sense of self is defined by the image you’ve created and that image fades, what do you have left? Her performance at the lavishly produced ball in the second act, provides the answer.
Lucian’s definition of a loving father figure pushes the very boundaries of what love means. Love, and the need to connect to someone—anyone–is expressed by the relationship Ms. Nina and Eric try to forge and the one Venus and Deity try to piece back together.
If there is any shortcoming to this play at all it is that McCraney fails to explore these themes with any depth. What could have been poignant moments were touched upon only sketchily. But then it is billed as a comedy.
Wig Out! provides a fun glimpse inside a world most people will never otherwise see. Theatre audiences, being mostly White, middle class, middle-aged to senior citizens, may not get this play (a couple sitting next to me, left during intermission). Producers suspected as much and provided a glossary of house ball terminology in the program. Even so McCraney references such people as E. Lynn Harris, Enrique Cruz and other things that only insiders to gay or ball culture will understand.
Nevertheless, director Tina Landau maintains a brisk and lively pace throughout and has the actors making good use of James Schuette’s set design. A runway for walking the ball scenes, extends into the audience from center stage, with some audience members seated left and right. Actors often enter and exit through the house, and the opening of the second act will bring you back from intermission. Scenes are also performed from two mezzanine-level boxes stage left and right, but audience members in the aforementioned stage level seats miss some of that action, which is unfortunate.
Toni-Leslie James’s costumes and Wendy Parson’s hair, wig and make-up design are all ball-worthy.
Good reviews and word of mouth have extended the run of this play twice. Originally set to close October 19, it was first extended to November 2 and now to November 16. Obviously a hot ticket, Wig Out! is worth the trip.