Family Values

at Famous Door Theatre Company

It’s easy to poke fun at Newt Gingrich and the fantasies that the self-described Christian right wing call “family values.” It’s harder to poke holes in the edifice right-wingers have designed and built to protect their privilege. But Shane Hendrix does just that in his late-night solo performance, playing nine characters from three abusive American families and crafting a low-key, wryly comic cultural indictment out of their interlocking stories.

Hendrix wrote and performs Family Values, but director Mary Booker has done a remarkable job too, finessing some of the script’s oversimplifications by honing Hendrix’s extraordinary skills as a character actor. His vocal technique, gestural specificity, and seemingly rubber face enable him to shift character simply by changing a shirt, putting on a wig, or tossing a hat on his bald head. In the tradition of Lily Tomlin and Whoopi Goldberg, Hendrix combines irony and carefully chosen stereotypes in his work, transcending his race and gender to present brief portraits that at their best are persuasively individual yet reflect broader cultural issues: New Age values, homosexuality, male chauvinism, nursing-home neglect, black-on-black crime.

The dysfunctions in Family Values are substance addiction and sexual abuse, both of which have been commodified in a seemingly endless string of platitudinous movies of the week. Hendrix writes and performs bystanders and victims more convincingly than he does perpetrators, but he avoids most of the traps of the genre by moving the abuse from the center to the periphery of the narratives. We learn only gradually, and only in brief asides, the family secrets rooted in the stereotypes and homophobia that form the underbelly of the “family values” movement. Even Hendrix’s quick, vindictive sketches of good old boys and patriarchs focus more on the characters than on their wrongdoing.

Hendrix’s weakest characters are Candace and Phil, a domineering mother and pothead son played mostly for laughs. His best characters are two women. Nan is a talkative divorced grandmother whose rambling stories turn surprising, often funny corners. She describes each member of her family with venomous pride, hands clenched in her lap, eyes large behind magnifying glasses, rocking with an almost vicious passivity, weaving nasty truths into superficial, gossipy, irresistible confidences.

Flossie-Mae, an elderly African-American street beggar whose long, spirited monologue seems transcribed rather than invented, is more mobile. Pacing, bent nearly double by osteoporosis, extending her paper cup for change, she talks alternately to passersby and to an acquaintance (apparently Hendrix himself) about the neighborhood, her gay nephew, and her own well-intentioned condemnation of his newly discovered drag persona. In Flossie-Mae’s pragmatic and energetic voice, Hendrix sings, coos, and curses the world, head tied in a rag, pants cloaked with a skirt, muscular chest covered with one of those bright polyester exercise jackets that only old women seem to wear. She is his best creation, the most cleanly scripted and carefully observed and the one performed with the greatest concentration.

But the center of the work is Flossie-Mae’s drag-queen nephew Niecy, whose narrative fills the second act. For this character Hendrix wears brown-skin makeup with drag-queen details and a wig perched way back on his head to reveal a high, naked forehead. Niecy combines the snideness and panache of a drag queen with the battered strength of a survivor, and Hendrix gives her a kick-ass act, including a riffed-up version of the sob song “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” As Niecy preens, she rambles on about her life, telling us about her boyfriend, the act she’s working on, her friends, her opinions on TV and pop psychology. In a way she’s Hendrix’s alter ego too, speaking about fighting back against oppression through eccentric, artistic gender-fuck identity shifts.

As Niecy pats makeup over the black eye her uncle left behind when he raped her, she gives a slow-building, liberating survivor speech. A jaded critic might dismiss this as a theatrical device that’s become stereotyped–and dismiss it with some reason. Lately, in academic and theater circles, the drag queen undaunted in her high heels has been overexposed as a symbol of political resistance, a highly visible and entertaining gender outlaw who flaunts her gay masculinity by flaunting the campy artistry of femininity. Sometimes a drag queen is just a drag queen.

But in the context of Family Values, where all the other characters are eager to repress their dirty family secrets, Niecy’s insistence on her right to style herself gay and queenly represents a moment of potent personal resistance that’s more than dryly symbolic, that has been earned. Because Hendrix has given her a specific, detailed story and an unusual hybrid drag style, Niecy caps the evening of loosely overlapping characters with an insistent, consistently individual presence. Through her, Hendrix confronts the world of “family values” and claims a future without passive suffering.

Family Values is a romp through a minefield that has as many potential traps for the performer as it does for an audience weary of trauma tales and of cultural violence in the name of the family. But this engaging, sometimes virtuosic show avoids these pitfalls, employing a risky, ambitious blend of comedy, irony, and cultural indictment.

In my review of Girl Theater (Bad as We Want to Be) I mistakenly attributed the monologue “I Am Emma Peel” to Gabrielle Kaplan. It was written by Wanda Strukus.