Features EssaysOpinion Published 4 June 2018

Taking Solace in the Comfort of Queer Art Created for Queer Audiences

Kev Berry reflects on Penny Arcade’s Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore! at Performance Space New York.

Kev Berry

Penny Arcade performing in Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore! Photo: Julieta Cervantes

As a queer artist, I am constantly thinking and worrying about whom my target audience is at any given moment and who it should be. I sit at my little desk in Washington Heights and toil over whether or not I am being too esoteric in my creation of work explicitly meant for comfortable consumption by fellow members of the queer family. Of course, I welcome non-queer folks, but they are visitors in the safe space I create for my audiences. On a recent weekend, at a performance of Penny Arcade’s Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore! at Performance Space New York, I found myself validated not only as a worrisome artist, but as a queer person living in America.

Arcade has created a completely loving and liberating space for her audience to revel in joy and nostalgia for an hour or two. Upon entering the space at Performance Space New York, erotic dancers of all genders gyrate to the pounding music and pulsing lights, a gorgeous Greek chorus welcoming the audience as they take their seats. At showtime, Penny Arcade makes her entrance and begins the first of four loosely connected monologues, wherein she portrays deeply vulnerable characters of varied political leanings, sexualities and ages. The monologues – according to a program note – were created in response to censorship by the NEA in the early 1990s and ring true today in the age of (quoting the program notes) “self-censorship coming from the left in the form of political correctness in today’s culture.” No seemingly uncomfortable topic is left unturned: prostitution, porn, religion, and in the evening’s most fiercely moving section, AIDS.

What makes Arcade’s performance(s) so wonderful is that she refuses to judge the characters she is playing, and refuses to allow us to do the same. The effect is humanizing and draws us in close to the characters; it allows us to see the world through the eyes of a brothel receptionist responding archly to skeptical heterosexual callers or through the eyes of a woman entrusted with caring for her friends dying of AIDS. Towards the end of the show, after a thrilling dance break, she wanders the theatre in the dark, sharing thoughts and fears from the early 1990s but which felt equally relevant and scary today. By the end, she’s back onstage naked wearing nothing but an American flag, railing against injustice in America, both 30 years ago and today. She tells us she brings a message of hope. And we believe her, maybe. Arcade is an irresistible performer, her production is a gorgeous Sermon on the Mount, and we, her disciples, are happy to allow her to preach to the converted.

Which selfishly brings me back to my own fear. On the way home from the show, and over the next few days as I mentally replayed again and again the experience of Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore!, I found myself thinking about the validity of Bob Hope-ing it. Taylor Mac, on judy’s album, “The Be(a)st of Taylor Mac,” says that even the converted need to hear the Gospel sometimes, that even the troops need to be inspired, and that in the case of the album, recorded live in Portland years ago, the audience there were his troops. At Performance Space New York last weekend, we were Penny Arcade’s troops, because, frankly, we were all on her side on our arrival at the theatre. Our socio-political leanings aligned with hers, and that wasn’t going to change. Her work was welcoming and cared for its audience, but didn’t necessarily challenge us. We left uplifted. Is this the point of queer art made for queer audiences? Compared to Taylor Mac, whose work is simultaneously welcoming to those who know it and alienating to those unfamiliar with confrontational queer performance (equally thrilling in my book), Arcade’s work was a walk in the park.

The overall feeling of both Arcade and Mac’s work is welcoming. To attain a ticket to their work, if you’re unable to afford the investment of a ticket to their shows at any level, it feels as though you can reach out and ask. Penny provided her e-mail at the end of the show and famously has an open backstage after her show, allowing anyone to come back and say hi. For Mac’s enormous 24-hour concert, there are subsidized tickets available for all levels of income. The artists want to wrap the arms of their work around you in a tight and life-affirming queer embrace. They want you there just as much as you want to be there, and they make it work.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, I think of Angels in America, now running on Broadway in a, frankly, earth-shattering revival. The production is a prohibitively expensive watch. This isn’t to say anything about the quality of the work itself, but rather about the profit-aimed focus of the production. What does it mean when a story that started out as a, yes, welcoming and life-affirming queer space is now commoditized and by necessity transcends its own target audience to turn a cash flow running in the black? And where does that leave the queer people neatly sitting in the show’s target who cannot afford a rush ticket? Despite the low cost-per-minute of an $80 viewing of the two part play, I know plenty of people who are still struggling to afford those low-end Broadway prices.

Where is their open communications e-mail?

Where is their subsidized ticket program?

Where is their welcome?

It’s in Penny Arcade’s work. Look to her for inspiration. Let her preach to your weary, already converted bones. Let her lift you up. Let her welcome you.

Kev Berry is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine