“When you know your name, you should hang on to it, for unless it is noted down and remembered, it will die when you die.”
–Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon
Courtney Berringers was a drag queen who lived and died in Albany, Georgia, and Terry Guest is here to tell her tale. Far from being a somber affair, At The Wake of a Dead Drag Queen is the end-of-summer celebration of life and femme power you didn’t know you needed.
In this one-act, two-hander, Story Theatre playwright-in-residence, Terry Guest, plays the flawed, fabulous, and inspired Courtney Berringers. Story Theatre co-artistic director, Paul Michael Thomson, plays the counterpoint as the warm and loyal Vickie Versailles.
At The Wake of a Dead Drag Queen has a deceptively simple plot: Berringers and Versailles meet at the club where they both perform drag. They hook up, fight, fall in love, and then Berringers dies; but the fact that we already know that Berringers will die at the end does not stop us as an audience from falling in love with her. It does not stop us from rooting with everything we have for the love affair between Berringers and Versailles to work out. Guest and Thomson’s chemistry is thick, pulsing, and palpable. Guest’s writing is poetic and sumptuous. With a heavy dose of humor, audience participation, and spectacular choreography executed to perfection, this lively play makes the audience forget we’re watching a ghost story.
In lieu of an ornate lobby display or a thick program full of research material, the audience is brought into the world of the play by its pre-show Gospel music and the stage itself. Front and center is an enchanting chandelier. The backstage of this world is depicted on stage right with a rack of sequined and flowing costumes and a small table with wigs perched upon it. On stage left is a small, raised stage. With this simple, direct staging, we immediately know that in this play about the donning of others’ personae we will be treated to the juxtaposition of what is revealed and what is hidden from public view, and there is no chance of escape. A wall of mirrors faces the audience, expanding the small playing space of the Raven Theater while our fractured reflections become part of the set, illuminating our collective implication in the narrative.
When Guest takes the stage at the top of the play it feels like a triumph. A triumph for all Black and Brown queer femmes and gender non-conforming people. It is the triumph of everyone in the room fighting daily to “stand up straight in a crooked room.” When Guest takes the stage, we can’t help but applaud and celebrate her very presence. Her glory is our glory, and we are ready to rage with her against death’s inevitability. In return, Guest serves us Whitney Houston, flawless in a bright pink wig and a dress that evokes a phoenix rising in flames from its own ashes. After her performance, Berringers promises a show full of unnecessary costume changes and drugs, sex, and R&B. With that, we are sold, putty in the hands of the speaking dead.
Throughout the play as Versailles and Berringers transform into pop icons that range from Kelly Clarkson to Judy Garland with the magic of makeup, wigs, sequined costumes, and 6-inch boots, their topics of discussion range from the film “Titanic” to police brutality. They share and compare their oppressions. They are united as poor people, and yet they face some very different realities. As a white person, Versailles does not face the same levels of daily police brutality and harassment that Berringers does, for instance. Despite – or perhaps because of – their conflict they fall in love, and this love is not only the miracle of the play but its tragedy.
A consummate performer, Berringers has survived by keeping everyone at a safe distance, and yet Versailles finds a way to break in by demonstrating that she does not need Berringers; she genuinely wants to know and love her. It turns out that being truly wanted and loved is the thing that most frightens Berringers.
In a heart-wrenching scene, Versailles confronts Berringers, and this moment is perhaps one of the most loving of the entire play. Courtney is dying from AIDS, they both know it, and yet Versailles still insists on fighting for their love. Tragically, Berringers cannot or will not receive the love of Versailles. We watch Versailles struggle with the only thing worse than a love one cannot obey: a love rejected. After weeks of calls and voicemails unanswered, Versailles lets go and moves to New York City. She and Berringers never speak again before Berringers dies at the age of 23.
My only complaint about this show is that they promised no crying. That turned out to be a damn lie which I can and will forgive. Please go see this show, and take some tissues. This play is a beautiful and moving tribute to Courtney Berringers, a powerful gift to all femmes who live at the intersections of multiple oppressions, and a reminder to–above all else–live and love as fiercely as we can, while we can.
Courtney Berringers – Terry Guest
Vickie Versailles – Paul Michael Thomson
Playwright: Terry Guest
Director: Mikael Burke
Assistant Director: Ayanna Bria Bakari*
Stage Manager: Lucy Whipp
Assistant Stage Manager: Cecilia Koloski
Scenic Designer: Alyssa Mohn
Sound Designer: Sam Clapp
Production Designer: Racquel Postiglione
Lighting Designer: Kyle Cunningham
Costume Designer: Uriel Gómez
Intimacy Consultant: Sasha Smith
Artistic Director: Paul Michael Thomson
Head of Diversity, Inclusion, & Outreach: Sydney Haliburton
Additional Producers: Matt Bowdren*, Eric Kirkes, Nadine Merheb, Brenna Welsh*
Photography: The Hagens
*denotes Ensemble member