John Epperson: The Real As Imitation

by Thomas Beller

06/03/2000

155 Bank St, NY, NY 10014

Neighborhood: West Village

I was at the bar of Florent very late Sunday night. A snow storm was raging outside. Pastis, that seat of slutty mayhem, sat up the block. There are now tastefully bright lights all over the meat packing district, where there was once just meat and the people who packed it. It was strange to sit at Florent, whose entrance is still adorned by a small string of multi-colored Christmas lights. Those lights used to be a beacon of tranny-civilization but now they seemed a little paltry compared to the bright lights of the newer arrivals in the neighborhood.

Up on the bulletin board above the bar, where the weather and various bits of campy information is posted, I saw that Lypsinka was performing in a play at the Westbeth Theater.

The Westbeth Theater was sold out the following Saturday, but they sold me a standing room only ticket. Sometimes it’s nice to see something without any context or expectations. Such was the situation now. The play was called “Imitation of Imitation of Life,” and involved the complicated relationship between two mother- daughter combinations.

Lypsinka played a blond viper, and Flotilla DeBarge played her black maid. Their daughters are friends. Flotilla’s daughter is almost white, and it soon becomes apparent that she is obsessed with passing as white, and resents her mother’s station in life and her blackness and everything else about her.

It was very funny in the way I expected, which is to say there was all manner of fun in having these two drag performers playing these fifties archetype women and constantly making explicit that which, back in the fifties, would have been barely implied, such as when, in the peculiar negotiation whereby Flotilla moves in as Lypsinka’s housekeeper, she brings up money. “I suppose you’ll expect some kind of money, you people usually do.” says Lypsinka.

It turns out that the play I was watching is an adaptation of sorts of “Imitation of Life,” a very successful melodrama, (nominated for two Academy Awards for best supporting actresses: Susan Kohner and Juanita Moore. Neither won; Kohner is film making brothers Chris and Paul Weitz’ mother) by the famous maker of melodramas, Douglas Sirk, who critics now maintain  infiltrated them with subtle acts of subterfuge. I’ve never been sympathetic to the “It seems like trash but in fact it’s brilliant” gang, believing that things that seem like trash often turn out to be, in fact, trash, but Todd Haynes (who I think is brilliant) seems to agree, so I will try and stay open minded. It certainly is fertile material for Epperson’s recontextualizing.

Watching the play without having seen the movie, I had no idea what was referenced, but the sense that thousands of tiny ironies were being lost on me did nothing to diminish the pleasure of the thousand ironies that were readily available to anyone sitting (or standing) in the theater that night.

Because in addition to the strange campy flurries, a peculiar hypnotic effect began to assert itself–the two women on stage ceased to be drag performers and simply became two women. And then they would do something that would break the illusion, or one of the other members of the cast would do something that reminded me it was all a big joke. There would be an ironic pause, and then the dramatic pull of the story and the performances would resume. There is something moving about really good acting, aside from the material that is being dramatized. The things John Epperson was doing with his eyes, the liquid bounce of his shoulders and hips,  the airy pivoting on the balls of his feet, it was all physical comedy of extraordinary, Keatonesque (Buster, not Diane) brilliance. There was the subtle mocking of a certain Lucille Ball kind of feminine spunkiness, and then there was spunkiness itself, unquoted, permeating the performance. The production got to have it’s irony cake and eat it too.

Because beneath the references to certain feminine and cinematic conventions of the late fifties, I was recognizing something, and couldn’t understand what it was. Then it hit me: I grew up around all these Manhattan families who had live in house keepers who were somehow part of the family, and yet not. They were almost all black. These same loving/bossy/insensitive mothers who, like Lypsinka’s Lora Meredith, treated their help like family members and also as servants, had probably grown up watching women like Lana Turner in Imitation of Life. What was being evoked on-stage was not a campy reference to a movie but the life itself in all its awkwardness.

And then the funny parts, the serious parts, the quality of the acting (the whole cast was energetic and superb), the peculiarly fraught aspect of the material (mothers and daughters) became a lovely cacophony of contradictions, which is a very long winded way of saying: I laughed! I cried! But it was amazing how often the production kept defying its own limits, as though they were trying to topple the delicate balance they had created.

“I’m late,” says a character at a one point.

“Not as late as this costume change,” replies Lypsinka.

In and of itself I would say such a thing is a cheap laugh. But what it did was somehow engage the audience at about a hundred levels at once; at a certain point a really intelligent piece of theater becomes oddly flattering to the viewer, because they are pleased with themselves at being able to appreciate it. This happens in books and movies too, but there is something about the immediacy of the theater that makes it particularly intense.

At the intermission I raced out to read what had been written about the thing, but there were no reviews in sight. I overheard two men talking about the play and asked if they knew if it had been reviewed.

“No,” said a man in a black turtleneck. “It’s not open to the press.”

“Why the hell not?” I said. “Wouldn’t you want some interesting minds here to try and write about this and make sense of what is going on here?”

The two men exchanged a glance.

“It’s been a long time since I equated the press with interesting minds,” said the man in the turtleneck.

It turned out I was speaking with the show’s publicist, and its director, Kevin Malony.

“What about that Ben Brantley review, where he said, he said…” I remember John having quoted it to me once.

In unison, the three of us chanted: “Mr. Epperson knew what he was doing!”

“See,” I said. “Not all writers are evil. So what happens after this?”

“We might bring it back,” said Mr. Malony.

“Might?” I said. “Might? Are you kidding? You’ve sold out the place four nights running and it’s brilliant. Are your out of your mind?”

I was cautiously asked why, exactly, I was there.

I was sort of moved by their beleaguered posture. They seemed to think the whole world was a bunch of hostile and moronic assholes, which I’m well aware is often a reasonable proposition. But at the intermission of Imitation of Imitation of Life, one had precisely the opposite feeling. Here, tucked away at The Westbeth, was this madly excellent production that no knew about. They were keeping it a secret!

The second act was as good as the first. After the show I went upstairs to the dressing room and blathered on to the cast about how great they were. They kept telling me I had to see the movie, and I kept insisting that what they had concocted stood on its own and was surely a huge improvement on anything Douglas Sirk ever did.

The dressing room, by the way, was a throng of voluptuous women with their breasts hanging out. Then the congratulatory crowd thinned and half of the voluptuous women took off their breasts and hip pads and became men and the remaining ones suddenly looked very strange standing there with their real breasts and asses.

“I miss you guys as women,” I said.

“I can change right back!” said Flotilla, accommodatingly.

I realize that the whole “Drag actors really can act!” epiphany that underlies this piece might seem agitating, but “I love drag queens!” was the general refrain I heard from people when I enthused about the show. I would try and explain that it wasn’t a performance piece, it was a play. A few nights later I was talking to a Hollywood director who told me of his plans of casting a play with the woman played by men and vice versa.

“You have got to see Imitation of Imitation of Life,” I said. “John Epperson and Flotilla DeBarge were stunning.”

“I love Drag Queens,” he said. “But I’m going to cast actors.”

“John Epperson is the best actor working today,” I said. He nodded in a pacifying manner that was really annoying.

Apparently the producers are thinking of bringing the show back under the title “Cheap Imitation of Life,” which I think is a good title, catchier, and also it adds one more irony to the whole concoction. I realize that “cheap” is supposed to have an intrinsic campy value but I have to report that the production isn’t cheap in its values and not even campy, in the end. It’s the real thing, namely life in all its many layers of feeling and absurdity made real on the stage.

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