Erik King, Jas Anderson, Daniel T. Booth, Joshua Cruz, Sean Patrick Doyle, McKenzie Frye, Nathan Lee Graham, Angela Grovey, Andre Holland, Rebecca Naomi Jones, Clifton Oliver
To hail Tarell Alvin McCraney’s latest play, Wig Out!, as a breath of fresh air is a gross understatement.
Groundbreaking in its subject matter and form-smashing in its presentation – with sassy, stylish direction from Tina Landau – this production is one that must be seen to be believed.
Revolving around the world of competitive drag balls, a decidedly underrepresented niche in the New York theatre scene, the action commences when drag queen Ms. Nina, known outside of the world of drag as Wilson, rides the subway home from a night out at a club.
Across the car, Nina spots Eric, a masculine gay man with whom she instantly hits it off. The two spend the night together, and the entrance of Eric into the gender-bending world of the club scene is the catalyst for the rest of the action.
Nina, you see, belongs to the House of Light (rival drag factions are here called “houses,” grouped together into units much like families, with traditional top-down structures). Her drag mother is aging queen Rey-Rey, her drag father is hulking Lucian (with whom Eric has a sexual history), and her siblings are on-again-off-again couple Venus and Deity. We soon find there’s trouble within the house, and things are quickly falling apart. Lucian threatens the deposition of Rey-Rey, and the news soon comes that rival House Di’Abolique will be throwing the competitive Cinderella Ball, for which they’ve been given only one night’s notice.
Through rehearsals and preparations, we get a sense of these characters’ lives. Each of the queens – no matter how butch or femme – seems to have struggled with his sexuality at one point or another. In a series of monologues, each beginning “My grandmother wore a wig,” they bare their souls to us, giving insight into their actions. Ms. Nina recalls the night his father walked in on him playing dress-up in his grandmother’s wig. Nina had smashed a mirror at the shock of his father’s arrival; his father wielded the shards, threatening to castrate his own son.
Mirrors – in the form of vanities and disco balls – are essential to the production, reflecting and refracting the characters’ perceptions of themselves. Never fully male or fully female, these characters are in constant gender purgatory. No matter their histories, within the world of the club at least they feel they can be themselves. But of course there’s no such thing as an untroubled paradise.
Conflict arrives during the Cinderella Ball of the second act. An underused, over-the-top Daniel T. Booth as Di’Abolique mother Serena sets things in motion after the intermission, but she is ultimately too unimportant within the narrative of the play. It’s the characters within the House of Light who are most compelling, and it’s their squabbles that thrust the play toward its satisfying conclusion.
McCraney’s achievement here is his masterful mixture of pathos and patent leather. In shedding light on the ritual and music of extraordinary characters in extraordinary situations, he’s brought to the forefront a variety of issues rarely addressed in theatre today. Where else has a play been seen that directly addresses the sexual roles of drag queens? Those interested in witnessing one of the boldest new voices in American theatre shouldn’t miss this potent exploration of gender in all its variations and the way preconceived notions of masculinity and sexuality are played out within the African-American and Latino LGBT communities communities.
McCraney’s innovation, however, reaches beyond daring thematic inclusions. He also rethinks the boundaries of drama, incorporating drag performance seamlessly into the action, both in the form of performers lip-synching to preexisting recorded songs and by utilizing his “Fates Three,” a chorus of three outspoken black singers.
Throughout the play, the Fates Three serve to underscore the dramatic action. Played by Rebecca Naomi Jones, Angela Grovey, and McKenzie Frye, they narrate at times and partake in the action at others, providing comic relief and occasionally serving as a literal singing chorus. As the only three biological women in the cast, they also serve as foils to the drag performers. In imagining the modern drag scene as epic in proportion, McCraney goes Greek on us, and these choric elements are a welcome addition, underscoring the grandeur of the proceedings.
Besides for the scintillating Fates Three, there are a host of fascinating performances on display here. Chisel-jowled Nathan Lee Graham is appropriately affected as Rey-Rey, and the central couple of Clifton Oliver as Ms. Nina and Andre Holland as Eric are perfectly matched.
Landau’s direction and musical staging effectively guide the uniformly excellent cast’s performances. Despite an undue reliance on gratuitous strutting and overly long musical segments, she can’t be begrudged the achievement of bringing us wholly and memorably into the world of these fascinating, unfamiliar characters. The environmental set design by James Schuette also contributes to the success of the production. Upon entering the Vineyard auditorium, the stage appears to be set up more for a club night than for a play. A runway segments two sections of on-stage seating, allowing the audience to be always close to the action. Loft spaces on the sides of the theatre are utilized for scenes that take place in the characters’ dressing rooms.
Though subtlety is not a quality Wig Out! possesses – or wishes to possess – its kitschy presentational style is absolutely fitting to its garish subject matter. The extravagance here serves to highlight the themes at hand. For a willing audience, the collusion of it all is electric. Here’s hoping audiences grab their wigs and head to the Vineyard soon. This one’s on for a limited time, but this epic catwalk of a show is worth catching.