Regional Premiere Of 'Casa Valentina' Shines Spotlight On Early Crossdressers And Transgender Women
The lives and habits of transgender people have been in the news cycle a lot lately in Charlotte. Next week the city is expected to take a vote on expanding the city’s non-discrimination ordinance to include gay and transgender people.
A play staged by Queen City Theatre Company this month provides another setting for the discussion - a hidden bungalow in the Catskill Mountains in the 1960s.
The play begins with a man in a tight pink muumuu seated at a posh vanity. He touches up his lipstick and applies more rouge, all while wiggling along to Peggy Lee's "I Enjoy Being A Girl" blasting from the radio.
In another room, a woman sits on a sofa shucking peas, preparing supper for the half-dozen other men who will soon arrive at the house.
One by one, they do, their heels clicking, dresses swishing, and wigs bouncing. They pour a round of drinks, break out the embroidery, and, once fully settled, begin their business meeting.
Acclaimed playwright Harvey Fierstein has written several shows featuring men in women's clothing - he wrote 'Kinky Boots' and 'La Cage Aux Folles,' among others - but in this latest work, the characters aren't campy queens in six inch stilettos.
No, by day, these characters are manly, heterosexual men. Some have wives and children. One is even a venerable judge. But on the weekends, they leave all that behind and travel to a hidden retreat deep in the Catskill mountains where they're safe to let out their inner women.
"I'm excited to see it all come together. I really am," said director Glenn Griffin at a recent dress rehearsal.
Audiences will probably wonder, if the characters in this show are straight, and they're not drag queens, are they transgender? Griffin says yes... well kind of.
"The author never comes out and says these are possibly transgender (women), but they are trying to live their lives more as women," he said.
Keep in mind, the play is set in 1962. The word "transgender" didn't enter the lexicon until a few years later. We know two of the characters, Valentina and Charlotte Price, are based on real transvestites in the '60s who would, as they got older, live their lives as women full time. But that doesn't describe all the characters.
"Some do say they do it for sexual gratification. Some don't understand why they do it. They just love to do it, and that is something of who they are," said Griffin.
This leads to complications when Charlotte, based on the real trans activist Virginia Prince, proposes the group go public as part of a national visibility campaign. The girls are forced to question whether they should come out of the closet, and if they do, as what?
The actors have spent a lot of time coming up with their own answers to that question, and they’ve also prepared for their roles in ways more physical. Berry Newkirk, who plays the young, Audrey Hepburn-like Miranda, spent the previous night learning how to shave his legs.
"It took probably a half an hour," he said, rolling up his pants to show off his newly bare calf, "I realized today there were some spaces I missed so I had to kind of go back in."
Like many of the actors performing in the show, this is Newkirk's first time dressing in women's clothing. Joining him in his drag debut is Matthew Corbett. He plays the venerable judge, or, as a woman, Amy, though at 6 foot 5 inches, he says he's more linebacker than female impersonator.
"I’ve got a size 16 foot," he said, "which I gave these guys a heads up when they invited me into this project. I said, start looking for shoes now."
And they did find him a pair of hot pink pumps that he wears quite well.
Director Glenn Griffin says a few of the men do have past experience performing as nightclub drag queens, but that's not really what he was looking for when he cast the production.
"I didn’t want drag at all, I really didn’t," he said, "because sometimes with drag you get a lot of that shading of the nose, and all this kind of stuff. And I love drag - I love drag. But these are men trying to be real women."
Expect to see more subdued makeup and more sensible heels. Each dress in this production was custom made for the actors using actual patterns from the time period, and every wig is styled in an authentic ‘60s hairdo.
After all, this show revolves around authenticity. Each character has to figure out who or what they are, authentically, inside.
If all goes right, audiences will leave the theater with a better understanding of men who feel like women, and, perhaps, what it means to be true to your inner self.
Casa Valentina plays at the Duke Energy Theater at Spirit Square from now until February 27.
This story was produced as part of the Charlotte Arts Journalism Alliance.