By way of introduction, Roger Q. Mason, a playwright and performer who uses the pronouns they/they, writes on his website: “I’m a black, Filipino, plus-sized, gender-biased, queer colorist. My work uses the lens of history to erase the cultural biases that divide us rather than unite us.”
Not only would this serve as an excellent description of Mason’s character, Taffeta, but also of Mason’s play, “Lavender Men,” which has its world premiere at the Skylight Theater in a beautifully crafted production directed by Lovell Holder. Taffeta, the sparkling emcee of this historical “Fantasia” who uses her/her pronouns in the play, uses her strange magic to bring Abraham Lincoln (Pete Ploszek) back from the dead so he can start his relationship with a clerk named Elmer E. Ellsworth (Alex Esola), to whom he is passionately, if discreetly, devoted.
Taffeta’s promise is that Lincoln and Elmer will get a chance to rewrite their ending. How could the story be different if these two men could express their tender feelings for each other? If they could overcome their shame and embrace the love that in 19th century America, or for much of the 20th century, dared not speak its name.
Larry Kramer has long claimed that Lincoln is gay, even writing about it in his novel The American People: Volume 1, Search for My Heart. Mason proudly walks her own path in this pink-washed tradition.
Here, Lincoln is horrified by Taffeta’s over-the-top mannerisms and doesn’t understand why this “dude” has called him into a world that no longer follows the old rules of gender, race, and sexuality. But Elmer, the object of his obsessive attention, is charmed by Taffeta’s carefree freedom, and so a theatrical play ensues.
Lincoln plays himself before he becomes president when he is a surly married attorney in Springfield, Illinois who dreams of a better life for his nation but is unsure of the level of his ambition or the effectiveness of his political talent. Elmer plays himself as a formidable young cadet who, after his dreams of becoming a general were dashed due to his short stature, receives legal training in Lincoln’s office.
When Elmer asks who Taffeta will play, she replies, “Everything you aren’t.” Roles she takes on include Mary Todd Lincoln, a black office girl, and a chandelier. But Taft is always in sight, resisting the whitewashing of the historical record, remembering Lincoln’s half-baked idea of sending formerly enslaved people to Africa after the end of the Civil War (regardless of where they were born), and sympathizing with the love-hungry Mary Todd Lincoln and encouraging the sparks of queer love to burn bright before it’s too late.
Taffeta imaginatively engages in historical revisionism, but her own history is as much at stake as Lincoln’s. As she explained to the 16th President early on, “You are the beginning of a trail of hate that makes me feel like a nothing.”
These Lincoln and Elmer incarnations are transformed by their imaginations. Notoriously unattractive, Lincoln is now a head turner that would be in great demand at gay circuit parties. Elmer is reimagined as a “muscle twink.” The adaptations are a way for Taffeta to flesh out her own feelings about being physically marginalized as a queer person of color whose body doesn’t fit stereotypical ideals.
Set on a set designed by Stephen Gifford to look like an antique cabinet of curiosities, Lavender Men sometimes feels like a game in which the inventor’s whims have not yet settled into a reliable pattern. The playfulness drags on in part because Lincoln and Elmer, while sensitively played by Ploszek and Esola, are rarely allowed moments of autonomous living.
Embedded in restrained modesty, Ploszek’s Lincoln seems perpetually on the brink of an erotic catharsis that never quite materializes. Elmer of Esola looks excited at the prospect of a liberated future while clinging to the fate that will see him buried in an early grave as one of the first notable casualties of the Civil War.
The piece, however, is Tafta’s fantasy. And Taffeta always knows best, even when haunted by the cruellest inner voices — the mocking, inflammatory, sadistic expressions of internalized racism, homophobia, and fatphobia. How could the story unfold if there was a mind to challenge her challenging intellect?
Co-produced by Playwrights’ Arena Company, “Lavender Men” gains power as it devolves into performance art and Mason theatricalizes the character’s visceral self-loathing. At one point, Taffeta drowns her sorrows in an apple pie – the sloppiness of the scene is a sharp source of her pathos.
Mason’s rawness isn’t dramatically seamless, but it’s still exciting to witness. Nothing is held back, which ultimately amounts to a kind of stage exorcism.
A daring theatrical talent is on display at the Skylight Theatre. Echoing the blended visions of Suzan-Lori Parks (“Topdog/Underdog”), Jeremy O. Harris (“Slave Play”) and Michael R. Jackson (“A Strange Loop”), Mason risks the fearless self-exposure of a performance artist like Karen Finley, who also puts her own body at risk in her work.
See Lavender Men in Skylight before closing (or online now that digital performances are underway) if you want to catch an artist on the verge of something fabulous.
Where: Skylight Theatre, 1816½ N. Vermont Ave., LA
When: Saturday 8:30 p.m., Sunday 3:00 p.m., Monday 7:30 p.m. Ends September 4th.
Tickets: Starts at $20
Contact: (213) 761-7061, lavendermenplayla.com
Duration: 1 hour 35 minutes
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/story/2022-08-23/review-lavender-men-abraham-lincoln-queer-history Review: Was Abraham Lincoln gay? A new play offers a queer lens