Judging from all the gray-haired men and women slowly getting out of their cars and walking arm-in-arm down the sidewalk, it looks like I am, unwittingly, going to a Sunday morning church service. Except it’s a Thursday evening. And, as far as I can tell, this is Richmond’s warehouse district, nary a church in sight. After I check the street address for the Richmond Triangle Players on my iPhone one more time before the battery dies, I fall in line with old people and headed for the door, which boasts, “If we didn’t do it, who would?”
RTP has been doing “it” since 1993: producing almost 100 plays, each intended to introduce gay themes and culture to the former capital of the Confederate States of America. Tonight’s offering is another sold-out performance of La Cage aux Folles, best summed up as a musical comedy about a gay nightclub owner, his drag queen husband, their straight son, his fiancée, and her decidedly homophobic parents.
In spite of its brick warehouse façade — three years ago, this building was a radiator shop — the theater the Richmond Triangle Players call home is all down-home glitz and spot-lit glamour inside: Polished counters, framed show posters, and black suede curtains play counterpoint to the building’s cinder-block walls and fluorescent lights. A tattoo-sleeved bartender takes your order before opening curtain and will remember it — Jameson neat, please — when you come back during intermission. The little old woman I saw just moments ago on the street is sipping her cosmo while her husband flips through the program. A few rows ahead, a black lesbian couple shares a laugh with the usher. The audience is made up, mostly, of straight couples above the age of 40. Plaid shirts and khaki pants abound.
I slip backstage to watch the cast and crew in the frantic 10 minutes before opening curtain. In the dressing room, I ask Dan Stackhouse, who plays Francis in the show, about the seemingly very straight crowd. “We’re later in the run now,” he says. “The gay crowds came for the first few weeks and loved it, then — I think — word got out to their straight friends.”
With just seven minutes to go, Philip Baraoidan, a lithe dancer with more energy than the packed dressing room can contain, comes running in. “And now,” announces a fellow cast member over his shoulder loud enough for everyone to hear, “you’ll see what it looks like for a man to get in drag in less than seven minutes!”
Wigs are being strapped on like war helmets, men are gasping as the stays on their corsets are tightened, and it’s all done with the ease of performers who have found a way to do what they love.
Speaking of love — it’s not just any Thursday. It’s the day after the Supreme Court rulings on DOMA and Prop 8 have been issued. Bittersweet news for a state that, in spite of its “Virginia Is For Lovers” tagline, bans same-sex marriages, civil unions, domestic partnerships and common-law marriages. Fittingly, La Cage aux Folles isn’t a musical so much as a glittering juggernaut, an argument for LGBT rights and marriage equality complete with drag queens, dance numbers, and improbably fast costume changes. And though a newcomer might understandably assume the show was written precisely for this week of marriage equality news and triumphs, La Cage has been high-kicking for 40 years.
In 1973, the play La Cage aux Folles by Jean Poiret debuted in France and ran for almost 1,800 performances, inspiring a French film adaptation and several sequels. In 1983, just as the AIDS epidemic was beginning to ravage New York City, and especially the city’s theater community, La Cage aux Folles, adapted as a musical, debuted on Broadway. The show was nominated for nine Tony Awards and won six, including Best Musical, Best Score, and Best Book. Since then, La Cage has become the only musical to win the Tony for Best Rival twice. Oh, and then there’s the matter of the American film adaption, The Bird Cage, starring Nathan Lane and Robin Williams. The fact that the musical is set in France — which, of course, has also seen recent breakthroughs in marriage equality — was just one layer of significance too many for this theater queen.
In a way, the musical’s outlandishly complicated plot parallels the hoops LGBT couples in various states with varying laws have to jump through. The idea of ZaZa, the show’s star, in drag as a Leave It to Beaver-like homemaker hosting a dinner party for her homophobic in-laws is no less bizarre than a gay couple getting married in California and coming back home Virginia only to have their marriage maligned by the state government and recognized by the federal government. How many times have LGBT activists warned anti-gay bigots that “one day, when this is all over, you’re going to look back and feel so silly?” Every day is that day at La Cage aux Folles.
It’s showtime. The house lights dim, and the usher guides on the last audience member to his seat in the dark. The overture begins, and I can’t stop smiling. The week’s news and the realities outside this little theater slip away, however temporarily.
Read more about my 15-day road trip exploring the Queer South at BuzzFeed.com/QueerSouth.