At 8PM on Friday September 30, the doors of Artist Exchange’s Black Box Theater in Cranston closed, sequestering a tightly-packed, 27-person audience from the heterocentric world for what would be an evening of quintessential Sapphic instruction. At least, that is the implicit promise of the play’s title, How to Be a Lesbian in Ten Days or Less, a solo show written and performed by Providence-based theatre artist Leigh Hendrix and directed by Peter Deffet. Yet for all of its campy absurdity, How to Be a Lesbian in Ten Days or Less earnestly surveys the unwieldy processes of self-discovery and self-expression with which queer women may contend in a culture that, today, offers them limited and highly stylized representations like those in The L Word. Hendrix draws upon her skills as an improvisational performer to engage her audience with refreshing dynamism.
The show opens in an explosion of absurdity when motivational speaker and expert lesbian Butchy McDyke struts before the audience in a sharp, grey blazer and asks with all the cocksure zeal of a high school basketball coach, “how many of you are here tonight because you want a lot more lady in your life?” She goes on to assure the audience that her patented method of becoming a lesbian in ten days or less has transformed the lives, and sometimes the sexual orientations, “of literally tens of people”—83 to be exact.
As the tongue-in-cheek embodiment of one classic lesbian stereotype, Butchy McDyke presents herself as the ultimate guide to the “cutthroat world of lesbianism,” the gatekeeper to all things gay lady. More importantly, the tutelage of McDyke also provides the framework through which Hendrix artfully weaves the narratives of two other lesbian characters: an unnamed and awkward performance artist who fancies herself a radical feminist, and a developing young woman named Leigh, whose scenes are based upon Hendrix’s personal experience.
Hendrix shifts with stunning finesse from the militancy of Butchy McDyke to the delicate aloofness of a self-absorbed performance artist, who represents another stereotype bequeathed to queer women: the rabidly political artist who compulsively intellectualizes gender and sexual identity to the extreme. The humor of these scenes comes from the gaucherie with which she attempts to analyze her work and her identity as a performance artist. That is, her self-consciousness as a performance artist becomes ridiculously excessive. Her clumsy attempt to “make a larger sociopolitical statement” about the “ever-descending bell-jar of oppression” falls comically flat as she distributes Crayola markers among the audience members and demands that they write words on the “canvas of her body” which heteropatriarchy has used to exploit her, a self-described “white, middleclass woman. A lesbian. And a South Carolinian.”
TEN DAYS OR LESS-BIANS
In spite of this ridicule of the performance artist’s excesses, a sociopolitical consciousness is clearly present in the show. Through her role as the performa nce artist, Hendrix seems to parody the stereotypical second-wave feminists of the 1960s and ‘70s, whose views have often been problematized as privileging the experience of white, middle class women. In turn, this mockery hints, perhaps, at a similar critique of today’s LGBTQ movement, which also tends to centralize the experience of white, middle-class people.However, while Hendrix traces a variety of significant aspects of queer experience ranging from politics to pop culture, her script never settles in one place long enough to become substantially invested in any one of them. After all, Butchy McDyke’s figurative “ten days or less” are ticking away, allowing the ridiculous to plow into the poignant in comical ways.
In one part of the show, for example, Hendrix makes a humorous transition from the tender confessions of alienation of a young lesbian coming to terms with herself back to Butchy McDyke, who declares in bawdy triumph, “And that is how I had my first orgasm!” Hendrix focuses on maintaining the energy level of her audience through these unexpected outbursts of raucousness. In the style of the theater company Five Lesbian Brothers, her script seems to make conscious effort to avoid anything which the audience might perceive as didactic, a critique commonly launched at lesbian theater.
The scenes of Butchy McDyke and the performance artist, which function as the vigorous satirization of two lesbian stereotypes, place into sharp relief the scenes based on Hendrix’s personal narrative. In contrast to the boldness of previous characters, Leigh comes across as a young woman humbly searching for her voice and struggling with the complexity of sexual identity.
Leigh’s scenes range in tone from confessional and poignant to histrionic and wacky, but are always imbued with a sense of catharsis. In her first scene, she recalls the painful confusion of her adolescence as she opens, “When I was young, I was sure I was broken.” In the scenes that follow, Leigh embarks on a healing journey through the performance of memory. With great melodrama she recollects her infatuation with country music star Reba McEntire, and the heartbreak of her unrequited love. Leigh then performs a dance to Reba McEntire’s song Till You Love Me, as “an exorcism” of that obsession’s specter. She also reenacts the experience of giving a speech on National Coming Out Day at her college in South Carolina in which she declares, “I’m telling my story, [and] I don’t care what you think.” This, of course, is just the sort of lesbian battle cry that ButchyMcDyke relishes, who completes her lesbian curriculum by leading her audience of pupilsina collective chanting of “I’m a big ol’ dyke!” at the finale.
THEATER OF IDENTITY
Yet amid the play’s noise and cheer, Leigh’s statement about telling her own story demands a moment of serious reflection in the context of lesbian theater, which in many respects is what How to Be A Lesbian in Ten Days or Less is about. She uses theatre to explore parts of her own past; she is a lesbian playing a lesbian, training an audience how to play lesbian in the quickest way possible—by performing two ready-made lesbian stock-characters.
Acclaimed lesbian feminist playwright Carolyn Gage often notes that one of the greatest challenges of working in lesbian theater is the near absence of a canon from which she may draw. She writes in an essay called “Ugly Ducklings, Or How I Came to Write a Play Where the Lesbian Doesn’t Kill Herself,” “Unfortunately, the narrative and dramaturgical conventions I inherited came from two thousand years of theatre written by, for, about, and serving the interests of men. The lesbian character does not fit into the patriarchal paradigm except as an object of ridicule, pity, disgust, or prurient interest […] Obviously within this paradigm I could not tell the stories I wanted, the stories that reflected my truth.”
Leigh Hendrix does tell the stories that reflect her truth, and she does so by transforming the challenge described by Gage into an opportunity for hilarious subversion of conventional theater. That is, she takes the inherited paradigm to a ridiculous extreme by inhabiting two lesbian stereotypes with such ruthless vivacity that the theater of identity is revealed at last, constructing a stage for her own experience.
STONI TOMPSON B‘15 is a big ol’ dyke.