Butch Chasers and Femmes Fatales

Jess Barbagallo on Merril Mushroom's Bar Dykes

Merril Mushroom, Bar Dykes. Performance view, The Flea Theater, New York, 2019. Emily Verla, Azalea Lewis, Moira Stone, Kiebpoli Calnek, Brooke M. Haney, Jeanette Villafane. Photo: Mikodo.

I ARRIVE TO SEE BAR DYKES at the Flea just a few minutes before 7 PM on a Friday. I spot Becca Blackwell and their best friend Casey ambling toward the theater from an unremarkable Tribeca watering hole; Jennifer is waiting inside with the tickets. Tanya texts me—“hold the curtain!”—and I can only guess what special dose of hell the MTA is serving her this evening. Returning from a quick visit to the all-gender bathroom, Becca excitedly informs us that bottles of wine are going for twenty dollars at the lobby bar. It’s a forgone conclusion that two will be purchased, and drunk, before the play ends.

Bar Dykes—a forgotten gem written in the early 1980s by Tennessee-based author (and proud butch) Merril Mushroom—is being presented by The Other Side of Silence, and the palpable enthusiasm of the show’s producers and directors that night is so earnest I have to blink twice to make sure I’m still in Manhattan. Furthermore, it genuinely puzzles me that, though I’ve been performing in queer theater for more than a decade, I’ve never heard of these folks, even though they’ve been making work since 1974, and so remain the oldest LGBTQ+ theater company in New York City.

Just as my friends are emptying their first bottle of rosé, one of The Other Side’s members stands at the stage door and announces that we’re about to enter a time machine that’s going to take us back to 1958, so we should turn off our cell phones, because even a vibration might startle one of the bar dykes. I burst into giggles, infused with the giddiness I pretty much only experience when I’m about to see theater made by (and ostensibly for) queer women. A vibration might startle one of the dykes, I think to myself, and I wonder if anyone else’s Euphemism Switch just flipped on too. In my experience, euphemism is the lingua franca of lesbian theater, and if this interests you, go read some performance texts by The Five Lesbian Brothers or Carmelita Tropicana—stat! And if you’re wanting more, remember that sometimes-playwright Gertrude Stein used to refer to Alice B. Toklas’s orgasms as cows.

We’re ushered into a smallish space that will serve as this evening’s locale; a sexy, if ominous, scene is already unfolding. Remember: It’s 1958, and despite the gentle jokes, we are entering a world where homosexuals are clandestine not as a matter of choice, but for survival. Our faithful bartender, Bo, is played with magisterial ease by Moira Stone, tall and dreamy with her swooshy hair and wide-legged pants. So far, she’s got a single customer: a skirted femme named Lorraine (Brooke M. Haney) who’s doing a crossword puzzle. It’s early, slow, that time of night before the rush—if she’s lucky enough to have one—when a bartender arranges her smokes at the register and pulls out her paperback. I can’t get good eyes on Bo’s book, but I imagine she’s reading some Ann Bannon pulp. Then again, Bo being the strong, silent type, maybe Hemingway keeps her and the bottles company.

Merril Mushroom, Bar Dykes. Performance view, The Flea Theater, New York, 2019. Alex Guhde, Moira Stone, Kimberly Singh, Azalea Lewis, Amy Bizjak. Photo: Mikodo.

There’s a jukebox and a few tables in this establishment, and the audience is arranged to surround the joint, so we can see one another. There are a lot of dykes in the house, mainly older and white, and some sweet fags, thick-in-the-shoulders, wearing khaki shorts. For my money, this is prime cruising grounds: dykes watching dykes watching dykes. Becca sits a couple seats away from me, holding their second bottle of rosé on their thigh like a stick shift, grinning impishly. In the bartender’s high-waisted dungarees, they and I see a character we have both played, on- and offstage. This is our homecoming.

A butch walks in! Rusty (Jeanette Villafane) surveys the scene, grabs a seat, then takes the beer that Bo slides her way in a deft bit of choreography. The two simultaneously light their cigarettes so they can have a chat. The dialogue is crisp and alive with cool-cat economy, quickly shifting into urgent gossip:

Rusty: Hot out tonight.

Bo: I’m hip.

Rusty: How’s Carol?

Bo: She’s okay. Been having some trouble with her teeth.

Rusty: That’s a drag. Dead in here, isn’t it?

Bo: It’s early. It’ll start jumping around nine.

Rusty: Jo Ellen been in lately? I haven’t seen her around.

Bo: Nah. Didn’t you hear? She’s gone straight.

Now Bo has Rusty’s attention—and the attention of every one of us who has ever fretted over the sexuality of a lover. A few lines later, the old hands share some worldly wisdom, flipping a tragic trope with cocksure delight:

Rusty: It’ll never work. Jo Ellen’s gay. And once a woman’s been with a woman, she’ll never be satisfied with a man.

Bo: I’m hip. I wish her all the luck in the world getting out of “the life,” but she’ll never be satisfied without a woman now.

Rusty: I’m hip. But some have to learn the hard way—if you’re queer, you’ll never be straight.

Bo: Playing the game don’t make you a member of the team.

Rusty: Sitting on eggs don’t make you a chicken.

It could be assumed that Rusty and Bo don’t have the easiest time of it in the “straight” world. But here, in this nameless dive, they are allowed to be philosophers, comedians, and experts of their milieu. In Mushroom’s universe, this expertise includes the ability to tell a butch from a femme—such speculation is near-foreplay here—and who might be able to be turned into the woman one wants them to be. Newcomers like Lorraine, for example, provide a particular source of titillation for this small community of barflies, who seem to have run out of new people to sleep with.

More regulars arrive: Cynthia (Azalea Lewis), an arch twentysomething sporting a beatnik’s black duds identifies as “kiki,” or switch. When Bo accuses Cynthia’s sexual stylings of being “wishy-washy,” she retorts: “Listen, sometimes I like to be the butch, and sometimes I like to be the femme. Depends on who I’m interested in.” Cynthia is a sort of precursor to today’s pansexual; liberated from labels, she mainly just sleeps with everyone, at least once, to see what it’s like. Endearingly slutty with her vodka martini and pencil pants, Cynthia seems like one of the better-adjusted members of the group.

Bar Dykes isn’t propelled by plot; it moves along via the stream of characters cascading through the door and the anticipation we all feel every time a new girl parades in: Will she be my type? Of course, it’s not all sport. In one of the play’s sadder rites of passage, a hysterical Joyce (Emily Verla), arrives at the bar, quickly downs a 7 and 7, and announces: “My Mother Just Found Out I’m Gay.” (I reproduce the line with Mushroom’s capitalizations, like the title of a reality show waiting to happen.) Her histrionics feel a bit over-the-top as Joyce gets progressively drunker and begins to boomerang around the room, trying to beg a dance off her former girlfriend Bette (Angie Tennant) who’s been making out all night in the corner with her new flame Andy (Kimberly Singh). When it becomes clear she will find no solace in this bar, the one place where she might feel safe, my heart drops. “Well, fuck you all then. I’m going home!” she screams, her humiliation only exacerbated when Bo pays a male cabbie to drive her home.

Merril Mushroom, Bar Dykes. Performance view, The Flea Theater, New York, 2019. Uré Egbuho, Kiebpoli Calnek. Photo: Mikodo.

There are also moments of exquisite joy in Bar Dykes, sometimes played without language: when the out-of-towner Elaine (Amy Bizjak), wearing a comically low baseball cap, spills a bottle of Miller on herself; when Linda (Kiebpoli Calnek), the only black butch at the bar, performs one of the sweeter seductions of the night on Sherry (Uré Egbuho), a shy woman, also black, who’s come to sniff out the scene with a small gaggle of white friends. I happened to be right in Linda’s line of vision when she asked the comely femme for a dance, her eyes widening in pure desire, and while Linda was not looking at me, I recognized myself in her complete inability to mask that one universal feeling: longing.

Bar Dykes isn’t playing for laughs, or drumming up nostalgia. Directors Virginia Baeta and Mark Finley follow Mushroom’s script to the letter, although a clear effort has been made to racially diversify the original casting; the history of queer women in the United States does not exclusively belong to white lesbians, despite the lasting effects of white supremacy on our collective theatrical inheritance. The cast completely commits to the tone and cadence of the text, honoring the characters’ individual truths with sparkling emotional depth. There are long transitional moments that have an almost archival feel, reminding me of LGBT docs I’ve revisited this summer, like Jennie Livingston’s Paris is Burning (1990) and Frank Simon’s The Queen (1968), works that feature moments of real-time social interactions, during which their subjects seem to forget the presence of an outside gaze.

One transition in particular stands out: The jukebox has just struck a new tune, and amid the ribald chatter and discrete interactions, Linda preens, coyly lifting her leg up onto a barstool to show off the curve of her ass; in another moment, she flexes her muscular arm. She does this all to pick up Sherry. In the audience, Becca snaps in appreciation at Linda’s shamelessness (and Linda’s shameless ass), and two buoyant fags nod in agreement, momentarily forming a troika of queens. I turn to my left and Jennifer is shaking her head in sheer delight at Becca’s delight and I feel delighted that I have introduced Jennifer to Becca, how happy I am to pass the rosé between these two friends, and how utterly content Casey seems, and how I know that Tanya, who couldn’t find a seat near us, must be laughing in her corner of the room. It’s a joy I don’t want to ever end, the kind that always makes “last call” so bittersweet.

Bar Dykes runs through August 3, 2019, at The Flea Theater in New York.