LOS ANGELES—Casey’s (Andrew Burnap) sorry career as an Elvis impersonator at Cleo’s, a small club in Panama City, Florida (the largest city between Tallahassee and Pensacola) has hit the rocks. Club owner Eddie (Nick Searcy) has to let him go, even though Casey is married, has the rent to pay and a kid on the way.
Enter Miss Tracy Mills (Matt McGrath), a self-invented grande dame of drag, with her sidekick Miss Rexy (Larry Powell), whom Eddie invites in to improve business with an all-new cross-dressing extravaganza. As the publicity says, this “hip-shakin’, heartwarming tale explores what happens when one man trades in his blue suede shoes for platform pumps and discovers he ain’t nothing but a drag queen.”
The Legend of Georgia McBride is now enjoying its West Coast premiere after successful runs in Denver and New York. It’s a hoot and a holler—with a costume change every few seconds, it would seem—that overtly or subversively bridges just about every gap in American culture.
This is the second play by Matthew Lopez that I have seen. The first was The Whipping Man, a three-character story set in the end-days of the U.S. Civil War which asked what it means to be free. A still young writer on the way up, Lopez holds commissions from Roundabout Theatre Company, Manhattan Theatre Club, South Coast Repertory, Williamstown Theatre Festival and Hartford Stage Company. He was a writer on the HBO series The Newsroom. I will run, run, run to see what he comes up with next.
Directed by Mike Donahue, with choreography by Paul McGill, both of whom worked on previous stagings of the work, Legend delivers an hour and forty minutes’ worth of intermissionless comedic fun—and as we all know, humor springs from deep roots in sorrow and pain. For now and the foreseeable future, Matt McGrath owns Miss Tracy: He also starred in the play’s two previous outings.
Andrew Burnap excels as Casey taking his first tentative steps toward his new avatar as Georgia McBride. Watching a man struggling to strut in stilettos is in itself not so new in the theatre, but we are witness to the legend of a total cocoon-to-butterfly transformation. Casey adopts a drag queen persona both on- and off-stage until he finally settles in on who he has become.
Along the way Casey gets a lesson in what drag people have gone through. “Drag ain’t a hobby, a night job,” Miss Rexy tells him. “Drag is a raised fist inside a sequined glove. Drag is not for sissies. That’s me. Who the fuck are you?”
Casey and those around him become better people in the process. “These wings are made to fly,” the drag company sings.
It also helps that the little dragforce of three (Casey and the Misses Tracy and Rexy) form an impromptu bargaining unit with Eddie, asking for better lighting and sound equipment, commercial sponsorship, and some back-up “girls” to ramp up the act. Worker-management cooperation leads to higher pay and a happier life for all. (All five cast members are Actors’ Equity.)
About blind casting
This production is more or less racially blind-cast. Casey’s wife Jo is played by African-American Nija Okoro. In the play’s previous stagings, the role was performed first by Jamie Ann Romero, a Caucasian, in Denver, and subsequently by African-American actress Afton Williamson in New York. The double roles of Miss Rexy and Jason (Casey and Jo’s landlord) were played previously by Caucasian actors, Nick Mills in Denver and Keith Nobbs in New York.
None of these three roles for two actors is specifically racially referenced in the script. We are expected to look through and beyond race in the casting, which would be ideal, of course. In fact, it’s a positive sign of the times that such blind casting is now possible and done.
At the same time, blind casting opens playgoers’ minds to questions they project into the script. For example: The play takes place in the present-day Florida Panhandle—Trump country—and we learn little of the family backgrounds of either Casey or Jo, nor of their circle of friends. If this is actually an interracial marriage, does race not factor into their lives in any way?
We hear much more about the backgrounds of both Miss Rexy and Jason, their past histories and relationships, and in our imagination we summon up visions of black life for these characters in both the big city and in smaller towns.
Would it make any difference if the role of Eddie, the club owner, were played by a black performer? Would that suggest that this is primarily a black venue in Panama City? Indeed, would it make any difference if Eddie were female instead of male? That would point to a level of women’s entrepreneurship that is not in the script, yet could be implied simply by the casting. And the lead role of Casey: I think for the time being we have to accept that this must be a male role, but does he have to be Caucasian, and what impact would the play make if he were not? Someday, if this play becomes a classic, we might well see an all-black cast.
Even the character of Jason (played in between the feathers and sequins of Miss Rexy), has his moment in the sun when he wonders if he might not have been better off years back if he had stayed with Fiona in New Orleans, the beautiful trans person he fell in love with before he checked out the equipment. Even speculating in retrospect without judgment must have been a heart-opening moment for many in the audience.
The experiences of these characters are finally universal, and this is perhaps the point, to place a mirror before the audience and ask, What preconceptions—and what prejudices—do you bring to the theatre when you see “non-standard” casting? What is it that you imagine “standard” to be anyway, and what does that say about you?
So we’re back to racially blind casting, which for virtually any audience evokes the potent race issues that still curse and in large part define America, and thereby represents a healthy and thoughtful response to intolerance.
A greater point is made: This oddly thrown-together assemblage of human castaways perseveres through hard times and becomes a caring family, whose members achieve a sense of responsibility toward one another. They now even have a couple of young ’uns to nurture into a more openminded future.
Civilization, Western and otherwise, always makes room for a little gender-bending as a needed corrective to our fixed notions of convention. If we can acknowledge that not every person fits into the neat boxes society prescribes for us, that creates room for others to emerge and shatter the walls and ceilings that hold them—and all of us—back.
In the end, it’s not even and not only about gender, but about possibility. How can we bring a new world out of the ashes of the old without breaking a few rules? As stated early on in the play, “Either be a pain—or not, and watch the whole world disintegrate.”
The Legend of Georgia McBride plays at the Gil Cates Theater at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Los Angeles 90024, Tues.-Fri. at 8:00 pm, Sat. at 3:00 and 8:00 pm, and Sun. at 2:00 and 7:00 pm through May 14. For tickets and information go to the Geffen Playhouse box office, phone (310) 208-5454, or go online at www.geffenplayhouse.org. Parental discretion advised.