(Originally published in the San Francisco Bay Area Reporter, 1992)
George Birimisa’s new play, The Man With Straight Hair, raises a voice against a particularly hazy and muted period of gay history. The staged reading of this work at Josie’s Cabaret and Juice Joint dealt with the circuitous sexual politics of two men couple in New York City during the days just after World War II, when Cold War McCarthyism hit.
There are many inside-outside posturings in this work which are fascinating. Innuendo and a lingo which is mildly askew highlight how the new mass culture insidiously drew the outline of its own underbelly – the notion of subculture defined by a grand Commie witch hunt. Depictions of gays from this period until very recently were suicidally nelly. But in this play, that’s accompaniment or background noise for the main characters’ own workings toward, or against, a homosexual, gay or queer identity. In terms of epistemology, and in the interest of language, each of these tags were in steady and surreptitious circulation throughout the period and didn’t hit gay “popular” culture until much later.
Some of the issues of the period include homophobia, anti-intellectualism, gender polarization, fascism, xenophobia, unemployment, abortion, and aesthetic and bodily freedom, which sounds revoltingly all too familiar. It’s like turning on the news to find that the sexual, cultural and computer revolutions – or even the New Deal, which eventually meshed us into a global village – haven’t led to much humane or social betterment in the long run, and that the early 1950s is an overcast mirror image in many frightening ways.
Critically, the work challenges simplifications and gimmicky genre tropes you usually get with a revisionist play, where the past get cast as some fore of the present in drag. Birimisa seems, instead, authentic to a fault about how things probably were during the time of his own coming out then.
What’s interesting is specifically how the lead women (straight characters) made inroads far ahead of the lead men (bent, veering toward gay characters) in terms of their equally spirited coupling tactics and self-integrity. Their compassion and resistance to proscriptions about their bodies provided role models for the man yearning for clarity and sense of place in the larger world. John Hogan and Darlene Ross stole the show from the moment they appeared onstage in their roles of brother and sister, and they looked like they were honestly having fun.
Straight hair is the metaphor for those easily baited into not-so-temporary exterior disguises, detachable and simulated cultural facades (like axle grease in an old queen’s toupee), and the huge psychological costs these enactments have always exacted. Birimisa’s current work is richly textured and uncovers an interesting piece of history that helps us with our own.