Judy Garland died on June 22nd, 1969. Six days later, a riot resulting from a police raid on the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, New York City, changed the face of gay politics forever.
Judy: Stonewalled is a new play out of London that juxtaposes the iconic singer and this pivotal historical event with stunning results. Produced by A Missing Link Theatre Company and directed by Rick Kish, the premiere came and went with the London Fringe this year, but this show really deserves a longer life.
It starts from the premise that Judy Garland led a troubled and desperate life, but she was somehow able to transcend it all and pull off beautiful performances. There was a genuine joy in what she was doing, but fans could also sense the pain and hardships that she was overcoming – and incorporating – in presenting this beauty.
“The fat women in the audience identified with her; the people who remembered their own unhappy childhoods identified with her; all the people whose insides have been torn out by misery identified with her. And she was singing for all of them.”
So says the Emcee (played by Rick Kish) at a Judy Garland tribute in the Stonewall neighbourhood on that fateful night in June of 1969.
The rationale for Judy Garland as a gay icon is laid out clearly in the early stages: “I followed Judy’s voice into the living room, like a siren leading me to crash on the rocks, but I wasn’t crashing anywhere. I was floating, like she was leading me to these calm waters and I could relax and stop fighting the storm . . . My breath caught in my chest, and I felt as if I’d been living in a foreign country and someone was finally speaking English to me.”
But all of this talk about Judy’s voice wouldn’t work without the payoff, and that’s where singer Natalie Howard-Grant comes in.
Right from the top of the show, we know that these songs are not just pop filler; they are lifelines for troubled and persecuted people. Inspiration and primary health care and therapy all in one. Natalie sings ten Judy Garland songs over the course of the show, and given the context, they are all emotionally charged to the point of overdrive.
I already knew that Natalie was a good singer, but this performance is something else. The Judy Garland songs and style and vocal range fit Natalie’s voice like a glove and she nails them all.
The scenes of people from the 1960s gay underworld engage the audience at the level of character and story-telling, but then the songs take off from the world of the spoken word and into the musical-poetic dimension as full-body experiences.
One scene has the melancholic and lonely Christopher (played by John White) reflecting on the fact that his status as a gay man means that he is defined by his own society as a criminal – and an insane criminal at that. (Homosexuality was officially considered a mental illness by the American Psychiatric Association until 1973.) Here’s a thoughtful, intelligent, slightly geeky guy who grew up just trying to navigate his way through a world which, at a fundamental level, is not designed for people like him. At some point in his life, he realized that his ostracization is not just a quirk of how he grew up; it’s the official position of his homeland. He is resigned to living his life alone, but “If someone had told me that to top it all off I was crazy and a criminal, I think that would have pushed me over the edge. Like it did some people.”
The irrepressible drag queen Tiki, played by Michael Bergeron, has little time for the sob stories. “I get so tired of ‘oh my life is so horrible, everybody hates me, my family doesn’t talk to me, I’m such a big old homo … Life’s so hard for us.’ Life’s fucking hard for everybody, so shut up and take me dancing.”
Still, she does acknowledge that personal tensions run deep: “We are a very funny people. ‘Laughing on the outside, crying on the inside.’ That’s us, darling. It’s how we get by.” Or as melancholy Christopher puts it: “We can’t live in public, so we slink out at night, like rats. And we stave off the loneliness with drugs and parties and brittle laughter that bounces off walls like meteor showers.”
Many gays lived in constant fear of having their lives ruined by being outed, and beyond the psychological torment, they had to face ongoing hostility, hatred, physical attacks and routine police harassment, with little or no thought of ever fighting back. Until June 28, 1969 and the Stonewall riots. It was one of those historical moments when a political movement makes a leap forward because of the decisions of a small number of people to act. There were several days of riots, confrontations between police and Greenwich Village residents, demonstrations, injuries and arrests, but more importantly, there was the crystallization of an attitude that the oppression of gays would no longer be tolerated.
Gay poet and Greenwich Village resident Allen Ginsberg visited Stonewall after he heard about the riots and afterwards he remarked, “You know, the guys there were so beautiful—they’ve lost that wounded look that fags all had 10 years ago”.
Judy: Stonewalled captures the spirit of one of the great liberation struggles of our times and playwright Denise Hay’s script is witty, heartfelt and multi-faceted. In addition to the afore-mentioned characters Tiki, Christopher and the Emcee, she created Brad, a transgendered man played by Martha Zimmerman and Steve, a straight-looking, closeted gay who’s not about to admit anything to anybody, played by Mark Medeiros. Significantly, he’s the only one of the five who does not go out to join the fray when the riot breaks out.
Profound and gorgeous and moving. And of course the whole thing ends with a killer version of Over the Rainbow.
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