The title Alleged Lesbian Activities might suggest a flamboyant show, but that is only partly right. Based on oral histories about coming out in the 1960s and 1970s, its tone is bittersweet. The nostalgic play, focusing on a New Orleans "dyke" bar, reminisces about a pivotal time in New Orleans' gay history.
With standout performances by the cabaret's master of ceremonies (Hannah Pepper-Cunningham) and Franki's bar owner (Indee Mitchell) to '70s hits that beckon the audience to join in and dance, Alleged Lesbian Activities is a loving portrayal of an almost forgotten lesbian experience.
The personal stories of Donna Bechet-Kilbourne, Deon Haywood, Paula Kilbourne, Juanita Pierre, Leslie Martinez and Liz Simon take place in bars such as Charlene's, Brady's, The Other Side, Les Pierre and Pinstripes & Lace. As LGBT people became more accepted, lesbian bars became nonessential. The city's last such bar, Rubyfruit Jungle, shut down in 2012.
Alleged Lesbian Activities not only examines the economic and social reasons why the bars closed, but expresses how their demise undermined a sense of community among gay people that crossed generations and lines of race, class and gender identity.
The production is the culmination of 25 interviews led by Rachel Lee within Last Call: New Orleans Dyke Bar History Project. Bear Hebert and Nelle Mills wrote the script, and Bonnie Gabel and Indee Mitchell directed the show.
The scene is Franki's, New Orleans' only "underground cabaret bunker," featuring drag and burlesque performers and impersonators. Its emcee, Privacy, resembling Cabaret's willowy Joel Grey, wears a black bolero jacket with gold epaulets and gold boots as she finesses the crowd. She wants the cabaret to stay open indefinitely while bartender Franki sees the writing on the wall. A diverse crowd intermingles and dances and pairs up as voiceovers share distant memories about making likeminded friends and discovering a new sense of freedom. Bars were safe places at a time when revealing their homosexuality could have gotten them fired or arrested.
"Your life was in the bar," Deon Haywood says.
Cabaret headliner Beverly (Rebecca Mwase) movingly performs an emotional montage of songs arranged by music director Keisha Slaughter. The carefree atmosphere where they "hit the dance floor hard," is captured in Aretha Franklin's "Chain of Fools," played by Slaughter on keyboards and trumpet by M'issa Fleming. Everyone disco dances onstage in an energetic rendition of "Ladies' Night" and Janice (Nathalie Nia Faulk) triumphantly sings, "I Will Survive."
The historic struggle for acceptance is recalled in Mardi Youngblood's account of narrowly escaping the fire set in the UpStairs Lounge, which left 32 people dead, and about a protest march against police, developers and the Catholic church.
A realistic set brings the audience into the intimate action of the club and personal histories of the lesbian community.