“We want everyone who comes in to understand that we’ve made a sacred space,” says House of Dinah director Andrew Russell, sitting in the dim light of On the Boards mainstage. “We’ve made a sacred space for black and brown LGBTQ people.”
Even pretzeled into a folding chair after watching Dinah tech rehearsal, the space still smelling of coffee and plywood, I get a sense of that sacredness. Behind us hangs a huge, floor-to-ceiling curtain, cutting the stage off from the theatre’s main seating area. Another stage has been constructed in the center of the existing stage, long and slender like a runway, connecting two larger playing areas on either end. On both sides of this stage/runway are rows and rows of chairs for an audience, positioned to look up at the story of Black Queens unfolding.
House of Dinah pulses with the music of Black gay icon Dinah Washington and movement from brilliant local choreographer Dani Tirrell. The show’s mélange of styles plays off of one another in unexpected ways: Vogue dance blends with jazz music, the ball culture of Paris is Burning meets the dramatic style of playwright Jean Genet. But ultimately, Russell tells me, the narrative is a simple one: “It’s a story about a day (or a night) that gets disrupted when an outsider blows into the bar.”
Playwright Jerome A. Parker first started writing this story of intergenerational Black Queens nearly a decade ago, and this is its first full production. Just watching this cast mark through sections of the show for tech cues, I have an unexpectedly emotional reaction, small bursts of awe and compassion. Kathya Alexander stands still and strong on stage, near a piano, singing Washington’s “Don’t Say Nothing at All.” Brace Evans slowly struts by me in white heels, snapping and listening. On the opposite side of the stage, Adé Cônneré does the same, gliding past a curtain lit in a luscious red. These three Queens assemble on stage and sit together, at Kathya’s gesture. I feel myself engage and relax. Across the room a young woman, played by Randy Ford, blows through the doors of a diner where the young Wilhemina (Stefan Richmond) is working.
During their scene, I glance back across the stage and the older Queens are observing, fierce and focused, in constant subtle motion. Next glance: Cônneré has effortlessly extended a leg skyward, knee suddenly facing nose, black strappy stiletto. Their grounded, languid energy is a powerful counterweight to the scene playing out across the room between the younger Queens, brash and combative.
The five-person cast (six if you count the onstage piano player) are all talented performers, but that wasn’t nearly all Russell and Parker were looking for.
“They connect to these characters on a visceral level,” says Parker, recently in from New York. Parker’s first trip out for this production, for a two-week On the Boards residency earlier this year, was focused on casting. “This is not one of those happy, tap-dancing musicals where you just sing a song and the ending is happy,” he says. “They have to tap into the emotion of what it’s like to fight for your life. What does it mean to fight for your survival, for your life, for your brother for your sister? What does it mean to stand in your power?”
The show also centers heavily on tradition, what it means to be a Black Queen of the last century, and the women will reflect those eras: Kathya in a sparkly ’40s gown, Brace in ’60s protest attire, Ade as “sort of a beautiful ’80s dominatrix,” Russell says. “They each represent a survival story from very different traumatic experiences. And the play is about how you understand that, own it, speak truth to it, so you’re better able to survive a really ugly world outside.”
The older Queens who have found their authentic voices will sing Dinah’s music with the piano, the younger ones will lip sync or remix. But one by one they will all tell the stories of how they got here, to the House of Dinah. It’s powerful stuff, wrapped up in glossy entertainment.
“I want people to come in thinking they’re going to see a drag show, and then throughout the 90 minutes it should steamroll over you,” says Parker, laughing. “We open up in a nice, almost comfortable, cabaret-type way, where a Queen comes out and sings a song to you—oh, nice. But then she tells her story, and you realize that this is not a happy, comfortable, kind of place. I’m hoping that we lull people in and then trap them in a web, punch them in the gut and then lights out, end of show, what did I just see?"
He continues, "Hopefully when people leave the theatre they can mull over those moments, and when they meet these people in real life, they’ll have a better concept of not only what they’ve gone through, but also that they’re people just like everyone else.”