Wayne Self’s Upstairs A Musical History, currently running at the Pride Arts Center, is a bit of a contradiction. Its title says it is a “history,” yet the program notes clearly identify it as “a work of fiction.” No one really knows what caused the fire that led to the deaths of 32 people at the Upstairs Lounge gay bar in New Orleans in 1973, and the historical record of what went on in that club/MCC church that night is murky at best, so Self’s speculation on all counts is certainly enough to label his piece fictional, but that hardly does it justice: its characters are or were (almost) all real people, and Self allows us to get to see them in personal and honest ways as he explores what was until Pulse the worst night in American LGBT history.
The audience is invited to walk right through the club to get to its seats due to the configuration of the theatre (a former 1920’s speakeasy). A joyful 1973 music mix is playing. (I hadn’t heard Three Dog Night’s “Black and White” in decades. The 70s could even make racial tension sound fun.) The vintage 70s bar is even “open for business”; customers can get drinks there before the show and at intermission. The effect is to put us into the club even more than would happen anyway in this intimate space where some scenes play out only a couple of feet from the front row. We are there, and we know that it’s going to burn. What a set-up.
The effect is to put us into the club even more than would happen anyway in such an intimate space.
Actors enter the stage for the start of the play singing a song about the bar’s place in their lives: a “Sanctuary” from the persecution of the world. (“Sure it’s fun to come but we’re just here hiding from the man.”) As we are introduced to the nine characters who will represent the 67 dead and survivors of the fire, Self also alerts us to the fact that, while he is capable of erudite writing (characters sing the song “My Man Is a Good Man” as one—Alex Iacobucci’s Adam—reads Flannery O’Connor), he’s also quite ready to toss in some lowbrow humor, thank you (“It’s for the cause…charity begins at homo”; “the decor is like what would happen if Dolly Parton was into S&M”). This in the same scene in which Inez (Miquela A. Cruz, a powerful actress delivering a powerful performance) tells the MCC assistant pastor, who happens to be dating her son, referring to religion: “Not everyone is into that kink.” It’s good, clever writing, and banter one might well imagine happening in that club at that time.
Juxtaposed to the bar scenes on the night of the fire, Self places scenes in which a broken Buddy the Bartender (Eric Briggs giving a raw performance here as a man with serious survivor’s guilt) tries to talk with Agneau (Nate Strain in another raw and powerful performance as a young man haunted by memories—and the ghost?—of his overbearing, hyper-religious uncle, played by Chris Moreno) about what happened that night. Both men, though, have secrets they don’t even wish to divulge to themselves, which makes real communication difficult. “If only I could breathe,” they sing, giving voice to the emotion within each of them.
In the bar, relationships are becoming clearer. Inez is there with her two sons, the talented young pianist George and the former hustler Horace, who is there with his current love Mitch (the MCC assistant of whom Inez disapproves). Buddy has been ignoring his boyfriend Adam, allowing Agneau—whose feelings about his own semi-closeted gayness are ambivalent at best—to move in. And drag performer Reggie is there to do a show along with his lover/assistant, Richard. During the course of this one brief evening, their lives all intertwine. These are people here to celebrate being alive, for the sake of the musical’s narrative, but also simply to live their lives: to have relationships, to fight, to argue, to kiss, to find themselves torn or confused or whatever because that is what life is all about in all of its harshness.
These people are here to celebrate being alive, for the sake of the musical’s narrative, but also to simply live their lives.
Even as Agneau, kicked out of the bar for fighting, ominously hollers out in anger that “no place is safe from hell, Buddy: you’ll see,” we can recognize it as one more thing that happens. People drink. They get angry. They say and do stupid things. And when the company comes together for the Act One finale, “Testify,” it is clear that they can testify to a life of trials and pain as much as they can to one of love and joy. (Four of the bodies from the fire were never even claimed: parents were too embarrassed to admit their sons were gay.)
Act Two is more tightly focused on Reggie at his makeup table getting ready to go on—we’ve been told he was on stage when the fire broke out—and on the ongoing conversation between Buddy and Agneau, which reaches a head when truths come out. What is true, Adam tells Buddy at one point, may not be Truth, and sometimes we force our minds to invent versions of “true” to protect us from “Truth” that can be harmful or to painful to bear. (The real Buddy completely vanished after the fire; no one has heard from him in four decades. In some way the play seems to be a kind of apologia, as if one is needed from the man responsible for those 35 saved lives. But, it argues, why couldn’t he have saved more?)
The second act also includes some excellent tech moments: the fire itself and a scene involving a descent into hell. In the latter, the actors were slightly outside of the light when I saw the show, but that doesn’t make the cue any less lovely. Director Eric Coleman and technical director Wayne Kupferer should be pleased not only by this but by the way this entire play, clearly a labor of love more than a commercial venture, came off. I was told before it began that they never expected any press. The fact that some of us were there, then, is gravy for them, recognition of what they have achieved: a play that may not hit on all cylinders, but certainly hits on enough to make it purr.
In the end, Richard (Jay Españo) urges Buddy to “find the right words” to escape his pain, and the spirit of Adam too tells him to “move on from this.” 44 years later, as Self’s play makes evident, we have not moved on, but that is another Truth: it’s an easy thing to say; it’s much, much harder to do.
Upstairs A Musical History is now playing at the Pride Arts Center, 4139 N. Broadway in Chicago, through Nov 26. Tickets are available from Pride Arts Center; half price tickets are available. Find more information about this and other plays at theatreinchicago.com