- Out on the Edge: 1996 Festival of Lesbian & Gay Theater
A mile or so south of Boston’s “theatre district,” where the ballet or the latest Broadway tour usually plays, is the Boston Center for the Arts. Located on Tremont Street in the predominantly white and Hispanic “gay ghetto” of Boston’s slowly gentrifying South End, the Arts Center is home to most of the city’s alternative theatre. Over a three-week span every September for the past six years, this is where the best-known—and many not so well-known—gay, lesbian, and queer performers have participated in the Theater Offensive’s annual Out On the Edge: Festival of Lesbian and Gay Theater.
The 1996 festival offered its usual queer smorgasbord: Tim Miller’s newest piece, Fruit Cocktail; Spiderwoman founder Muriel Miguel’s one-woman show, Hot & Soft; the world premiere of Five Lesbian Brother’s Brides of the Moon; Holly Hughes’s midnight performances of On All Fours, featuring material from her newly published Clit Notes; and two lesser known artists who brought the most provocative work to the festival—Daniel Jones’s Blood:Shock:Boogieand Sharon Bridgeforth’s no mo’ blues. For the connoisseur of lesbian, gay, or queer theatre, this lineup is itself extraordinary, but the organization which produces the festival also deserves our attention.
The Theater Offensive’s year-round work includes community outreach, development of local lesbian and gay artists, political activism, coalition building with both political and artistic organizations, and anti-homophobia educational projects in Massachusetts public schools. All this work, along with their self-produced events such as a street theatre group (A Street Theater Named Desire) and a cabaret (Adult Children of Heterosexuals: THE BAND), creates the larger context for the festival.
Producing six short runs for each show along with free workshops requires an enormous effort for the company’s small staff. According to festival producer and Theater Offensive artistic director Abe Rhybeck, during the first festival they lost several thousand dollars and the friendship of nearly everyone involved. But Rhybeck (who identifies himself as “a trashy, Jewish, communist, safe-sex porno, drag queen performer”) persevered and over time has achieved what may seem an impossible task: the creation of queer community theatre.
Contentious debates surround the identity, origin, and use value of the word “queer.” If on the one hand “queer” supposedly includes all nonheternormative identities, on the other it denies the labels of identity politics. If a theatre festival’s measure of queerness is thus demarcated by its inclusivity and respect for diversity, then the Theater Offensive’s productions can be called truly queer. For even if queer is not specifically about identity politics, the festival presents theatre by and for a vast array of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, and nonheteronormative identities within the elusive compass of the queer community. Daniel Jones’s Blood:Shock:Boogietaken alone could span that gamut. A pastiche of poetry, dance, jazz, monologue, and hip-hop riffs, the work explores Jones’s own identity, which he says fills the spaces between black and white, straight and gay, male and female.
Community is likewise a contentious term. The most consistent critique leveled against “community” and “common ground” is that they stand for the concerns of gay white men. Performance artist Tim Miller, for example, has been criticized for universalizing his gay white male body, but his performance of Fruit Cocktailtook on a different flavor when performed on a double bill with Muriel Miquel’s Hot & Soft.The two bodies, identities, and life experiences told by the performers differ drastically. Miller uses his svelte, still youthful body to tell stories that inevitably return to his middle-class suburban home. Miquel proudly announces she is fifty-nine and defiantly displays her large voluptuous body, drawing stories from the mythical coyote tales of her Cuna-Rappahannock heritage. Yet both presented tales of their lusts, passions, and desires. The evening suggested that queer [End Page 367]desire may tell a common tale despite the specificity of each queer body.
“Queer” may resist a...