My Mother Told Me I Was Different
nytheatre.com review by Komail Aijazuddin
July 21, 2006
The Fresh Fruit Festival, the gay child in a rapidly increasing family of summer theater soirees, delivers a sometimes tart but always juicy slice of the LGBT experience in Carol Polcovar's My Mother Told Me I Was Different. The play is based on Polcovar's interviews with people who were present the night of the Stonewall riots in 1969, which began at the seedy underground gay bar the Stonewall. The resulting monologues are first-person accounts of the decrepit glamour of an underground meat market that unexpectedly propelled the gay rights movement forward amidst sequins and snaps.
The characters remain nameless, distinguished by numbers or letters sewn onto their costumes, and run the entire gamut of the gay court: Drag Kings and Queens give way benevolently to rent boys, prostitutes, aesthetes, and police officers, all tied together by an unlikely event that led to a likely eventuality. Watch out for the exceedingly giddy Southern belle drag queen sporting a leopard-skin hat (number 6), whose excitement at moving from Atlanta, Georgia to the Greenwich Village of sin is enviably contagious; or the slightly volatile and neurotic hippie who tries to make the Pentagon levitate as an anti-war tactic (letter A). Enjoy the unapologetic Long Island gay boy who blurs the already hazy lines of gendered fashions, and the bewildered police officer who is part of the State's effort to control the riots.
The similarities to Eve Ensler's The Vagina Monologues, though constant, are subdued; as the actors present a near-constant silent chorus in the background that visually echoes the monologues being performed. Dancing, stripping, laughing, crying, poisonous looks, boas, despondent loneliness, and casual pickups are just some of gems in an ambience that conjures a night at the Stonewall on a steamy evening in June 1969. An appropriate, if predictable, soundtrack of Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand, and other mothers of early gay pop helps evoke the distant memory of what the Stonewall bar might actually have been like.
The monologues, each independent but tightly woven into the narrative, lead the audience from the culture of Stonewall, past the patrons of the bar, to the eventful night of the riots. When weak, the speeches are stereotypical and flat; some of the actors seemed hesitant with the dialogue. When strong, the monologues transcend from story to experience and demystify an event that, like most historical eventualities, takes on the air of Myth rather than Memory. As a side note, one can hardly ignore the several protests recreated onstage ostensibly for the Vietnam war, long since over but still valid.
Polcovar's play is an homage to the faceless, nameless civil rights leaders who decided to forego platforms in favor of pumps in order to get a message across to the rest of the world, and didn't even know it. It's a piece of contemporary history that never bores.