Busride to Heaven
at Link’s Hall, November 3-5
Cross-dressing once packed a powerful countercultural message. Back before athletes dressed in drag to sell basketball shoes and actors like Patrick Swayze felt it was hip to play a drag queen (as long as everyone knows that he’s straight in real life), cross-dressing was a visual attack on a heterosexist world–a nagging reminder that there’s more in the world of human sexuality than men who desire only women and women who desire only men.
But given all the toothless cross-dressing today, both on the tube and in theater, a performer has to do more to make a point than don a dress. Sadly, no one has gotten that message to Manhattan-based Mark Dendy. He spends three-quarters of his sweetly entertaining, mildly funny one-person, four-character show in drag, playing a black transvestite hooker, an overly made-up televangelist, and a bitter old southern lady.
Of these three characters only Pawnie, the first, has any ideological bite. She also has the most interesting entrance–she literally pushes her way into the theater through the front door dressed in torn stockings, bikini briefs, and tattered lingerie and wobbling uncertainly on spike heels, apparently high on cocaine, before she confronts the audience with her spiel. “Hey honey, got a quarter?” Only after she’s hit by a Mr. Softee truck and is waiting for the bus to take her to heaven do we learn the true complexity of her life.
Born white and male, Pawnie is a double fraud, pretending to be both black and female. And her radical otherness combined with the vividness of Dendy’s performance accomplish exactly what a drag act should: make the audience question the apparently easy boundaries of race and gender. For her quarter hour or so onstage, Pawnie jabs and jabs again at our most cherished stereotypes. She definitely is not a hooker with a heart of gold. Not a sweet transvestite. Not a pitiable but well-meaning drug addict. Not a man who has, a la Tootsie, used cross-dressing to better understand what it’s like to be a woman in America. Nor a white who has, a la Black Like Me, crossed the color line to better understand our African-American brothers.
And then, as quickly as it began, the jagged piece ends, raising more questions than it answers and giving us no hope that Pawnie’s life in heaven will be much easier than her life on earth was. If the evening had ended here, or if Dendy had managed to fill the show with three other characters as dangerous as Pawnie, this would have been quite a bus ride. Sadly, however, the other characters are just the sort of sweet, empty things that have turned drag into the 90s equivalent of stand-up: something anyone can do with little or no preparation.
Dendy’s second character, televangelist Sandy Sheets, is a Tammy Fay Bakker knockoff complete with big hair, tons of eye makeup, and a psyche teetering on the verge of a 19th nervous breakdown. In fact, during the show she falls over that edge, takes a fatal overdose, and ends up waiting for the same bus to heaven that Pawnie is waiting for.
But Sandy Sheets’s story is considerably tamer than Pawnie’s. She crosses no boundaries, raises no interesting questions about race or gender. The Sheets persona enables Dendy to lob a few firecrackers at the religious right, but for the most part they fizzle: these attacks are either obvious (Pat Robertson is remarkably un-Christian) or class-based (to hip urban eyes, televangelists are tacky). Dendy does tease us for a while with an idea that could have developed into a stinging critique of the Christian Coalition’s homophobia–part of Sandy Sheets’s missionary work involves converting gays to heterosexuality. But mysteriously Dendy is content to toss off the joke on his way to exploring the already well-satirized world of Bible thumpers and twangy country music. There’s one touching moment, when Sandy Sheets is convinced by God to go back to earth and preach a gospel of love, not hate, but it actually further waters down what had started with Pawnie as a pretty strong, angry message.
So does the only nondrag character, an ever so slightly angry but fundamentally nice gay man named Adam. In other, more capable hands, this man in man’s clothing (tie-dyed T-shirt and jeans) could have been used as a point zero, a measure of “normality” by which to gauge the more flamboyantly dressed and coiffed characters. And in a sense the persona of Adam serves this function anyway, especially given his name (get it, Adam, “first man”). But only the most active viewer will draw the connection: nothing in Adam’s life story–which he tells us–or in his gestures connects him with Pawnie or Sandy Sheets.
Even more colorless than Adam is Mee Maw, an aging belle whose southern gothic story of rape and revenge is told with such bored matter-of-factness and lack of wit that it soon grows tedious, as does Dendy’s performance. He does completely disappear into the character, but is she worth disappearing into? It seems Dendy never confronted that question.
Nor does he get around to answering the fundamental question of all performance: Why are we watching this? Or more to the point: What makes Dendy in a dress any different from all the other guys in girls’ clothing out there? The shallowness of the show is further emphasized by the goofy “angel dances” performed by three people in angel costumes in between Dendy’s appearances. Set to painfully white country-gospel tunes, these are collections of moves cribbed from square dance and Holy Roller church services, diverting and kind of sweet but, like Dendy’s attack on televangelism, not likely to raise any new questions about spirituality or our ongoing culture wars.