Photo of David Leeper by Sean Lambert
For better or worse, bars play a key role in LGBT life. They’re where we come out, meet friends and lovers, raise money and awareness for our causes, and sometimes even make history. All those functions that bars serve in our world and how that world has evolved in the past five decades is the theme of At the Flash, an engaging one-man, one-act play just getting its West Coast premiere after a well-received debut in Chicago last year. Written by Sean Chandler and David Leeper, directed by David Zak, and starring Leeper, it’s being presented through at the Celebration Theatre in West Hollywood.
The five roles Leeper inhabits highlight the diversity of the LGBT population: a closeted married man in the 1960s, worried about being spotted at the eponymous Flash; a smart-mouthed drag queen training a novice in the ’70s; a young gay man coming off a breakup and looking for new love as the AIDS crisis emerges in the ’80s; an earnest lesbian campaigning against the Defense of Marriage Act in the ’90s; and a partnered gay father reopening the bar and, to some extent, living the gay American dream in the new millennium—but finding that there are still obstacles to overcome.
Leeper proves himself wonderfully adept at shifting from one character to another, even spanning all five in rapid-fire fashion at a couple points. The closeted ’60s man and the out-and-proud contemporary father are the most well-rounded, but all the characters are recognizable, although the drag queen veers toward stereotype. Leeper avoids that trap by balancing the surface sass with underlying vulnerability. While the ’80s guy comes off as desperate and a little whiny, at the same time, he seems like someone you’d encounter in almost any bar. That activist lesbian—politically passionate but eager to avoid seeming too “crunchy”—is believable and sympathetic, eventually revealing a heartbreaking story of discrimination.
Leeper and Chandler’s script offers a broad historical survey of the modern gay rights movement, charting progress without tying it all up too neatly. To some extent, that’s what art does—tie up loose ends to make sense of life—but At the Flash leaves room for the uncertainties that still exist. It reminds us of the spaces where we find connection and community. Every large city had a place, or several, like the Flash. We can look at the spare set and envision any of the versions we may have encountered—and remember the people who’ve been there as we’ve taken a few steps forward and resisted the pressure to go back.
At the Flash continues through May 26 at the Celebration Theatre, Los Angeles