How Two Flawed Plays Deal with the Forgotten Symbol of the Tragedy of the UpStairs Lounge


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When I told a couple of my queer friends that I’d been on a streak of self-imposed emotional auto-terrorism — seeing two plays that grapple with some of the most painful stories in queer American history — I was surprised that they only had a vague knowledge of UpStairs Lounge, the location of the deadliest attack (prior to Pulse) on a queer social space in the USA. I was only surprised because I assumed I’d been alone in my own ignorance: prior to noticing that two plays examining this tragedy were on simultaneously in New York, “UpStairs Lounge” was a familiar name imbued vaguely with sadness and reverence. But I, a 28-year-old gay man, wouldn’t have been able to tell you why.

A generational divide — between those who learned to fuck and date and love in the dark, and the generation that was (to an extent) able to do all of the above in the light provided by their predecessors — is an immense part of both The View UpStairs, at Culture Project’s Lynne Redgrave Theater, and Gently Down the Stream, at the Public Theater, both through May 21 (though totally unaffiliated). In both plays, the UpStairs Lounge becomes a symbol for forgotten struggles, of how future generations’ comforts are often wrought in broken bone.

Beyond these two theatrical discourses, the UpStairs Lounge was a New Orleans French Quarter gay bar in an attic on Chartres Street. On June 24, 1973, it was hosting a dinner and drinks hour for a pro-LGBT church. A pianist was playing when flames broke out, fueled by lighter fluid poured into the doorway, turning the bar-cum-makeshift place of worship into a gravesite for 32 people, some of them dying from asphyxiation, others from flames. The arson case was never solved, and as Let the Faggots Burn writer Johnny Townsend told the Daily Beast, “the mayor didn’t make any statement, the governor didn’t make any statement.” The most likely perpetrator was a man who’d been kicked out of the bar earlier that day and threatened to burn it down in vengeance. This was “pointed out to the police [at the time], but it was just dismissed,” Townsend said. The man killed himself a year later.

Both plays feature a surrogate character for the Contemporary Gay Viewer traveling in time — in The View Upstairs, literally, and in Gently Down the Stream, via a younger man’s immersion in the home, life and heart of an older man. The latter play comes from the writing/directing team behind Bent (playwright Martin Sherman and director Sean Mathias), and is a straightforward dramedy that traces a relationship between a young lawyer (Gabriel Ebert), who fetishizes gay history, and the older man (Harvey Fierstein), who becomes his lover/boyfriend/object of his interest in the gay historical unknown.

To the play’s detriment, Fierstein’s character is treated by the playwright — just as he is by his boyfriend — as more of a historical amalgam than a person. The script fleshes out his character by having him deliver three self-historicizing monologues, all of which are recorded with a camera by Ebert’s character. In one, he discusses having been in New Orleans in the ’70s. He stopped into the UpStairs Lounge, then left to get his boyfriend an aspirin at a nearby Walgreen’s. When he returned, the building was in flames, with his boyfriend inside:

Afterward, he was identified by tiny fragments of hair, hair that I would recognize anywhere, hair that I loved to touch, hair that he loved to touch, hair that would soon be starting a long journey to middle age and oblivion, but not now, not ever. He was one of the lucky ones; one man’s charred corpse could be seen for the next day wedged in a window, clutching desperately on to the iron bars.

This last image is repeated in The View Upstairs, a jubilantly queer musical that takes a turn from celebratory and ecstatic to confronting the sudden incineration of that joy. The script, by Max Vernon, needs a disclaimer of “yes, I know this is absurd” when its narrative is written out: it starts in the present day, following a burgeoning fashion designer (Jeremy Pope) who’s just moved from Bushwick back to his hometown, New Orleans. And, wouldn’t you know it, the abandoned, semi-charred attic space he just so happens to be moving into used to be the UpStairs Lounge. And you certainly wouldn’t know it: it’s also something like a time machine, because all of a sudden he’s there in the ’70s, swimming in a sea of bellbottoms, unbridled sexual energy, and communitarian pathos, all fueled by the derision and subjugation that the Lounge’s denizens suffer outside its wonderfully kitsch-choked walls.

The play thereby attempts a story of juxtaposition: how does this Grindr-raised post-hipster break his Instagram-ready shell to understand these strange individuals who look at each other while talking, court one another IRL, and revel in their difference because the rest of the world disdains it? (There’s a gag where, before the main character inevitably falls in love with a sort of Mary Sue of a gay ghost, he’s reluctant about the fact that they haven’t premeditated their interaction by talking on Grindr.) Over the course of the play he falls in love with the past, and with the strength and sense of immediacy of the people who refuse to be complacent. By the end, he realizes how complacent he and his fellow millennials (which seems a touch off base) have become. In an extremely, clumsily didactic (albeit correct) monologue that concludes the play, he declares that there are many, many things to fight right now, from continued attacks on queer spaces like Pulse to racism to everything Trump-related.

Sarah Schulman’s 2012 book The Gentrification of the Mind emphasizes how capitalist society will naturally subsume a group that was formerly oppressed but is now “accepted” into its oppression of other minorities. In doing so, she explores how the concept of “gay” has evolved over the last 30 or 40 years. “[We are] so traumatized by mass death and the indifference of others [that] we assimilate into the culture that allowed us to be destroyed,” she writes of the aftermath of the AIDS epidemic. “In this process we can take on oppressive roles — for example, the increasing anti-immigrant sentiments of assimilated LGB people in Europe, or pro-military attitudes accompanying the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell repeal.”

“Gay” was once the signifier for a caste of people who were replaced, literally, by gentrification: hundreds of thousands died of AIDS while the U.S. government did nothing, leaving housing open for up-selling in places like what are now New York’s most expensive neighborhoods. But as the next generation arrived, “gay” became associated with white, bourgeois, patriarchal norms, and eventually with the perpetuation of gentrification. (“Queerness,” by contrast, isn’t only meant to suggest disinterest in binaries, but often also in the socioeconomically complicit connotations “gayness” had taken.)

While no-one should ever be faulted for wanting acceptance, within a white capitalist hetero-patriarchy, being accepted is a mainstreaming act. And that is, often, an act of forgetting. This notion of forgetting also speaks to symbolic and physical borders: is the struggle over if American cities are generally safer places to be openly queer, but rural communities still are not? If gay men are accepted into the mainstream, but trans people can’t use the bathrooms that fit their gender? If white gay men feel like they finally have visibility, but queer people of color continue to fight for it? If America now allows same sex marriage, while pogroms against homosexuals are happening in Chechnya?

Both plays use the unfortunately semi-forgotten story of the UpStairs Lounge as a device to ask these questions. While Gently Down the Stream approaches these ideas tangentially, The View Upstairs is a direct examination, and challenge to, complacency and the borders of empathy. Both plays ponder what was sacrificed — and who sacrificed it — to allow the current generation the comforts they enjoy.

There’s an endless amount of social nuance to explore in the juxtaposition of two generations who’ve experienced different contexts of the formula of oppression + time: one generation whose love and sex and courtship and pride were shunned, the other whose love and sex and courtship and pride have been accepted… and then rapidly commodified (a critique of Pride festivals, in particular) and algorithmized for capital gain. “Worldwide, a typical Grindr user spends approximately two hours a day on the app,” noted the Advocate last year. “That’s more time than we spend eating.” That article included a discussion with Steven Cole, a UCLA professor of medicine, psychiatry, and behavioral sciences. “They don’t cause literal isolation,” he said of gay hookup/dating apps, “but instead promote brief relationships that may sometimes come to substitute for, or even displace, a deeper sense of connection to others.” The very structures of desire are manipulated towards ephemerality to perpetuate profit, with gay men funneling desire and persona into squares within a glowing, flat grid.

In a recent, huge piece in the Huffington Post entitled “The Epidemic of Gay Loneliness,” Travis Salway, a researcher for the BC Centre for Disease Control in Vancouver, made a similar point: “The defining feature of gay men used to be the loneliness of the closet…But now you’ve got millions of gay men who have come out of the closet and they still feel the same isolation.” Pope’s character in The View Upstairs echoes this phenomenon in the way he comes to idealize the UpStairs Lounge, and specifically its removal from consumerist American norms. The world we live in has never been a place for any type of romantic ideal for queer people, but there’s a large gap between the ostracized-and-brutalized and the commodified. These plays present characters who’re familiar with one of these two temporal (and largely locational) poles, interacting.

Given the power of the material they work with, then, it’s a shame that somehow neither play is, well, all that good. Both The View Upstairs and Gently Down the Stream come with the readymade complexity of the juxtaposition of generations, so it’s a shame to see characters flattened into, well, think-piece-y symbols of their times. But it’s also telling. Perhaps in the way that they both recount history so heavy-handedly — not so much weaving the past into the fabric of a character-based story as using semblances of character as vessels for history lessons — the plays underscore that the only reason such history-forward theater would exist is because this history has been forgotten.

Instead of being able to color in lives with suggestions of history, these two plays are both stuck describing the tragedies, or stiffly dichotomizing generations as symbols. It speaks to the fact that these are histories that were erased that these two plays feel it so necessary to devote so much energy to emphasizing why it’s important to remember. The forgotten cannot be remembered as full beings — just as reminders of the oppressive processes that make it so hard to remember.

When I saw the Upstairs Lounge, during a maudlin bit of musical theatrical empowerment, I began digging my hand into my leg in annoyance; in one of the closest seats to the stage, though, was an older man, weeping. Nathan Lee Graham — a mainstay in NY queer theatre (who by far gives the show’s best performance) — approached him, and for a moment, he sang the song he was performing while clutching the man’s hand. My removed, purely critical reaction to the play — the partial objectivity of someone being told a story for the first time — couldn’t have felt more causally linked to the emotions of a man whose tears were, I assume, tied in to the very history that allowed me to sit comfortably, with enough remove to wonder, largely, why it wasn’t more artful, more nuanced.