Before I Disappear
By Carol Burbank
Is it a boy or a girl? A child is usually easily classified at birth, but in the 90s, by the time it’s an adult, there’s no guarantee it’ll act its gender. Just as blurred as the social scene is contemporary performance, with cross-dressing explorations and gender-blind casting opening up new possibilities for actors and audiences alike. Even when the performer’s gender is obvious, playful role reversals are more the norm than the exception. And in the radical realm of gay theater, performers can stretch the boundaries of social and sexual convention with the fey wave of a masculine hand. With the upsurge of camp and politicized cross-dressing in theater, there are more ways to entertain and disturb audiences than ever before.
Productions like Victor/Victoria, Tony ‘n’ Tony’s Wedding, and Vampire Lesbians of Sodom rely on camp and burlesque traditions for their box-office appeal. Whatever political subtext may pulse beneath the sometimes brutal wit and careful excess of drag storytelling, these shows usually feel more like romps than revolutions. Somehow, knowing that there are really a man’s wide feet in those size-12 pumps makes everyone but those on the far right feel safe. And if it’s Julie Andrews, of course everyone can rest easy–it’s just a game. It may be a queer game, but it’s a game nonetheless.
There is a Chicago tradition of more dangerous drag, however. Nomenil stuns the audience into laughter with its gross-out cross-dressed clowning, which jumbles storytelling rules, gender rules, and cultural in-jokes. Even more transgressive is Joan Jett Blakk, now living in San Francisco. When she campaigned for president in 1992, stumping the streets and lecture halls in skin-tight dresses that outlined every untucked masculine line of her body, she called attention to the politics behind her playfulness, making politics into theater.
Bailiwick’s Before I Disappear, directed by Mary C. Beidler, raises the political stakes of drag even farther, disrupting more subtly than Blakk’s street theater or Nomenil’s shock-style fragmentation. Writer-performer Alexandra Billings, literally a self-made woman, has recast her life as musical theater, thereby confronting her hometown audience with an entertaining and disturbing paradigm shift. Her dream of performing conventional musical theater has twisted itself into testimony as a transsexual woman that reflects the increasing flexibility of gender in contemporary theater and daily life. The show’s power comes from Billings’s ability to reflect maleness, femaleness, and multiple combinations of masculinity and femininity, finally morphing into a hybrid gender with a theatrical integrity of her own.
Born Scott, Billings has invented and reinvented herself, partly through surgery. Before I Disappear documents years of confusion, drug addiction, therapy, and 12-step programs. Her life seems to have been defined by crisis and dislocation. In her story, moments of reprieve last only long enough to lull her into vulnerability. Lovers are killed in car accidents or turn into violent drug-coarsened sadists. Friends disappear or die of AIDS. She overcomes her addictions only to discover that she’s HIV positive. Only in the brief promise of the present does Billings find peace–in her work as an AIDS educator in high schools, and in a happy marriage to her childhood sweetheart, Chrisanne Blankenship-Billings.
Billings performs herself as a conventionally spunky survivor whose determination helps her overcome the horror of these true-life perils of Paul/Pauline. She also plays other characters, who provide context and comic relief amid the devastation. Her mother, a harried socialite who always has a drink in her hand, repeats the rituals of convention as if these will make her son “normal” but gradually comes to accept her once son/now daughter. Billings also offers cameos in tribute to the local drag queens who trained Scott in camp performance, when he was known as Shante. And Billings parodies the people who behaved as if she were a freak, with merciless precision and a twisted moue that turns into an outright grin, a transformation that only an experienced drag queen can accomplish by straddling the comic traditions of both genders.
Billings’s talk-show-host character, for example, grins with an inane rictus that combines Sally Jessy Raphael’s perky therapist pose with Ricki Lake’s earnest banality. This character rips into the unbelievably naive Billings, who thinks she’s been invited on the show simply to talk about overcoming addiction, exposing her transgender status and repeatedly dismissing our heroine’s complicated life as a symptom of “what’s wrong with society today.” This scene effectively shifts the audience’s attention to its own socially conditioned internal monologue, which for radicals, liberals, and conservatives alike can be reduced to one question: “Is this a man or a woman?”
Billings is a good enough performer that this question is a pulse underlying the evening rather than a distracting mantra. And far from reducing her to a freakish figure, the audience’s gender consciousness makes Billings’s performance more compelling. Using spare, carefully executed pantomime to indicate changes of place and time, she takes us through her gender transformations even as she demonstrates that the inner Billings has not, in fact, changed gender. Our growing intimacy with Scott/Alexandra demonstrates the transsexual’s belief that a sex-change operation corrects a birth error–that a woman’s soul born in a man’s body cannot be satisfied or socialized. Scott and Alexandra may look and act different in the world, but in this story they are always the same.
Billings offers an intriguing and radical idea, especially in the United States, where despite the popularity of drag we’ve been socialized to believe that gender roles are biologically determined and that conformity is linked with physical and moral health. Billings makes us believe we have choices. Observing her as she moves through her self-propelled evolution, it becomes clear that gender is a highly theatrical performance, a performance that at its most comfortable is part of a range of identities for her. In a way, Billings’s story argues that her emotional health is made possible by transgression.
When we first meet her she’s the gangly Scott moving through boyhood. Scott tries to mimic women, wearing his mother’s clothing and make-up, but he’s always abrupt and off balance, throwing himself around in a way I associate by habit with little boys. As he gets older he becomes a clownish exaggeration of boyness, alternating attempts to conform with a self-conscious, mawkish femininity.
Later, when Scott becomes a drag queen, he begins to twitch his hips in a hypersexualized representation of womanliness and to wave his arms like comically constrained tendrils in the drag queen’s imitation of glamour. Angular and pretty, he turns his back to the audience. The light illuminates a young man with long hair. He turns around, arms akimbo, and becomes the powerful gender clown Shante, declaring, “I ain’t no woman–I’m a queen!” All woman, and no woman at all.
Finally Scott becomes Alexandra, the narrator and brassy singer we’ve come to think of as the central self in the play. Alexandra walks without the exaggerated hip glide of a man playing a woman; she leans her shoulders back and leads with her breasts, small but beautiful beneath her silk shirt. She relaxes her body in a way Scott could never do. And yet when the light hits her face at a certain angle, she looks like a handsome young man. Then she shifts, giving her head a slight tilt to become seductive in a womanly way again.
What is the gender of this wo/man? To herself, Billings is clearly female. For the audience, the ambiguity is itself theatrical, a puzzle that goes to the heart of the popularity of drag performance. This puzzle is even more challenging because Billings is no longer a drag queen–she now wears the body of a woman. If this is a mask, a performance, it’s one she’s made permanent. Again and again this show stimulates and frustrates our need to categorize.
I suspect this puzzle was not the primary impulse behind Billings’s piece. Since her operation she’s worked very little in the theater, except for a few performances, notably a sullenly campy role in Vampire Lesbians of Sodom and a remarkable turn as Gertrude Stein in Gertrude Stein and a Companion at Strawdog Theatre. This show is an opportunity for her to belt out Broadway-style music, dance, and acting in a town that hasn’t adapted well to her transformation.
More important, Before I Disappear is a skillful confessional strut through a life that offered few chances for pride and hope. The grimness and triumph of Billings’s story come through despite a few self-congratulatory and aimlessly melodramatic moments, thanks to her emotional range and the sheer dumbfounding facts of her life. Even without Billings’s intriguing multiple-gendered stage presence, it would be a story worth hearing, before she, like so many talented artists, disappears as a result of AIDS.
By presenting her life to us as normal, Billings puts the very idea of normal in question. Is she a boy or a girl? It’s a cliche to say she’s simply herself. She is not. She is a shifting mirror of our cultural gender norms, which morph into combinations unimaginable without her transsexual status.
But Billings is no circus oddity either. She creates a stage self that defies even the most sophisticated categories we use to contain our fear of difference. She is herself, and more than herself–a remarkable performer I’d like to see in more conventional roles. Her gender misfit could be our theatrical blessing.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Alexandra Billings.