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Review: Justin Elizabeth Sayre’s Exhaustive and Uproarious The Gay-B-C’s

Review: Justin Elizabeth Sayre’s Exhaustive and Uproarious The Gay-B-C’s

Review: Justin Elizabeth Sayre’s Exhaustive and Uproarious 'The Gay-B-C’s'

Song of the Loon, anyone? 

I never would have dreamt we would experience an era of extreme-endurance, multi-part gay theatre, but, my oh my, here we are. We may be watching as Taylor Mac's gargantuan 24-hour masterpiece A 24-Decade History of Popular Music spawns a slew of daughters, all grappling at great length with American queer identity. Mac's once-in-a-generation artistry has breathed new ambition into queer theatre artists and audiences. We are newly intrigued by the exhaustive. We marvel at stamina. Of course New York is lining up for the Broadway revival of Angels In America, but London's audiences have made Matthew Lopez's new six-hour multi-generational epic The Inheritance a sold-out hit, and the underground is beginning to whisper in anticipation of rising writer Kev Berry's 21-act play Fabulous Creatures.

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Another is Justin Elizabeth Sayre's The Gay-B-C's, which will presumably run ten hours in total. This piece, which will be published next year in book form by Chronicle Books, is a comprehensive and anti-assimilationist work of humor, expounding alphabetically on hundreds of elements comprising gay culture at or around the turn of the 21st century. Sayre - who identifies as non-binary and uses gender-neutral pronouns - has honed their precise authorial voice over the last decade of solo work, most notably at the long-running monthly series The Meeting, which made them to Joe's Pub what Penny Arcade was to the Village Gate.

The Gay-B-C's made its West Coast debut last Thursday night at the new queer venue NAVEL in downtown LA. In the first of five parts, which covers everything from ABBA ("You were worried I was gonna start with AIDS, weren't you?") to Divine, Sayre handled the audience with the energy and authority of an ambitious adjunct professor. Wearing their signature caftan-and-heels combo, the performer was equal parts gossipy and poignant, swerving with gusto through the dusty annals of gay literature (Song of the Loon, anyone?), back issues of After Dark magazine, notable gay-for-pay porn stars, and the public eccentricities of camp icons.

While Sayre every so often relishes crude anecdotes about the likes of Tallulah Bankhead, many of the evening's bits are dead-serious. The section on ACT UP is direct and painful, and Sayre offers a beautiful ode to the outcast with "B is for Bar," imagining themself as a young lesbian secretary descending the stairs to the long-gone Manhattan gay bar The Bagatelle in search of a daddy. Yes, The Gay-B-C's also functions as a primer on antiquated lesbian lingo.

At the end of two hours - which included readings from James Baldwin and Countee Cullen alongside clips of the campy Maria Montez film Cobra Woman and Marlene Dietrich singing "Puff the Magic Dragon" in German - I was overwhelmed by the sheer breadth of material covered. Much of the applause came with excited recognition - where else are we talking about Radical Faerie filmmaker James Broughton? - but Sayre deserves credit just for being so extravagantly curious. Among the deeper cuts was the segment on Rae Bourbon, a long-forgotten trans icon of the twenties and thirties, her stint on Broadway with Mae West, her not-to-be-believed novelty album "Let Me Tell You About My Operation," and the remarkable story of her death, which apparently involved mobsters and a puppy mill.

If I have one complaint, it's Sayre's presumption of audience expertise on some of his subjects. We all know about Cher and alkyl nitrate, but primers on the earliest days of trans activism and Josephine Baker's civil rights labor were necessary, and the "cold efficiency" of George Cukor's blowjobs and Maria Callas' rumored hankering for anal play are least among their many qualifications for gay icon status. I hope the upcoming book will expand where necessary, if only for millennial queers who have yet to discover "Sylvia Scarlett." But there's also the chance that I'm just alarmed to learn something I didn't know about Maria Callas. For that I am grateful, and I will pass on the knowledge should the subject arise. Of course, sparking further dissemination of delectable queer minutiae is Sayre's goal here, and it is a worthy enterprise, suited perfectly for their gifts. With The Gay-B-C's, Sayre gives new meaning to the term fabulist.

The Gay-B-C's will resume with Part 3 at Joe's Pub in New York City on June 2, and the series will continue throughout 2018 at NAVEL in Downtown LA. The work will be published by Chronicle Books in 2019.

Austin Dale is a writer in Los Angeles.

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