Jeff Abell

at Randolph Street Gallery, November 19 and 20

Most drag personas, it seems, go to one of two extremes: they either exoticize and idealize feminine beauty, or they mock the patriarchy, the women who feed into it, or both. But drag personas are also like DNA: unique, evidentiary. So it was with tremendous pleasure that I watched Jeff Abell glide out onto the stage at Randolph Street Gallery in his drag persona–a persona that has made many appearances on Chicago stages and yet here, in Music for the Tooth Filing Ceremony, seemed wholly transformed.

Abell’s drag bit didn’t make up much of the program. It occupied maybe ten minutes at most, and yet it spoke volumes more about his vulnerability and strengths than the much longer and still powerful piece he performed naked, “A Litany of Saints,” at the end of the show. Usually Abell’s drag persona has a throwaway camp quality–always inherently aware of her pathos, he’s seemed to work consciously against it by creating distance between himself and her. But this time the persona seemed to elicit whole other emotions from her creator: pride, dignity, a serene and steely maturity.

Physically, Abell’s drag persona resembles nothing so much as the Old Maid card from the classic children’s game: she’s ungainly, out of proportion, the sweep of her hair emphasizing a long aquiline nose. There’s a hint of the witch. It makes perfect sense that a younger Abell–perhaps as concerned as the next gay man with gay male culture’s unfortunate and relentless emphasis on superficial beauty and sensuality–would have conflicting feelings about what the persona might reflect of his own soul.

But Abell today–the 40-year-old gay man who can wink and call himself a “master homosexual”–has different ideas: he loves this persona not in spite of her longing but almost because of it. She does not deny the intrinsic pain of her destiny, but neither does she simply accept it: she understands the power of pain, and she’s learned that its power comes from transcendence. Abell’s drag persona is not a metaphor for his acceptance of his sexuality but, more precisely, for accepting the spirit of that sexuality: its place in the world as folly, danger, and salvation. In this piece Abell’s drag persona is an archetypal gay Auntie: a guardian of the knowledge and a guardian angel for the initiates. She is one fabulous witch.

Magic is a constant in Music for the Tooth Filing Ceremony, Abell’s complex, multilayered piece about sexuality and community, love and death. There’s the magic Abell talks about–as in the wonderful opening monologue, in which he describes his Balinese dance teacher telling him “about gestures so small the audience wouldn’t be sure they happened.” And there’s the magic of the performance itself: Music for the Tooth Filing Ceremony lasted nearly two hours but was so captivating it actually seemed brief.

Directing an ensemble of seven–including such powerhouse stage presences as Doug Stapleton (aka Gurlene Hussey) and Joan Jett Blakk–Abell produced a seamless, near-flawless piece. Using so large a cast, and particularly Stapleton and Blakk, was quite a risk: Abell is not a particularly forceful presence himself. They could have easily blown him off the stage. But he seemed to understand that, and let them play to their strengths while he played to his. Stapleton nearly brought the house down with a manic, hilarious monologue as a racist, sexually repressed Margaret Mead. Blakk was herself, bawdy, loud, and outrageous–initially taking Abell to task for imposing his values on her (concluding with a mad spate of china throwing and breaking), and later as a sister lip-synching an aria. And meanwhile Abell was himself: patient, thoughtful. As T.S. Eliot might say, an attendant lord, ready to swell a scene or two, to drive the plot but not get in its way.

The title Music for the Tooth Filing Ceremony refers to a traditional Balinese rite of passage for men. Throughout the program, Abell draws comparisons between Balinese culture, art, and ritual and his own life as a North American gay man. The choice of Balinese culture, which concedes the fluidity of male sexuality, is not gratuitous: Abell has a decade-long relationship with the culture, and both his familiarity and admiration show. There was much humor here, as well as beauty and grace.

Abell reprised one of his most provocative and wrenching works in the ending piece, “A Litany of Saints,” a display of scapulars and listing of the names of people both alive and dead. Standing naked onstage, gold leaf spread like butter on his chest, Abell spoke not just of his love for the individuals named but also of the lessons–both direct and inadvertent–learned from the exchange of love with them. Some were romantic loves, but others were not: these were loves of every hue, of every dimension.

At one point during the Friday show Abell’s voice cracked just a bit. It was a moment that was so small, and over so quickly, you had to question it: Did it really happen? Or did we imagine it because it should have happened? But with Abell, these things really do. His triumph is how real he is, how unpretentious and unashamed, how he gave this work a shine but never made it glossy.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jeanette May.