Is it possible to choose love over family? Over your own identity? That’s what playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney wants you to consider with his play Wig Out!, currently playing at Studio Theatre and helmed by director Kent Gash.
McCraney’s name should ring a bell: Last year, he won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay alongside Barry Jenkins for Moonlight, the coming-of-age story that was partly based on the challenges he faced as a young black man on a journey of self-discovery in the streets of Miami. And McCraney is not a new voice to theater, or the D.C. theater scene; his breakout Brother/Sister Trilogy has been produced in New York and London, and his play Choir Boy was produced by Studio Theatre in 2015.
With Wig Out! McCraney brings us into a world where fierceness and family are inextricably linked through the lens of African-American drag ball culture. In The House of Light there’s the crowned mother Rey-Rey (Jamyl Dobson) and a father Lucian (Michael Kevin Darnall), and in this house there are rules: Don’t come in without your face on. But the House of Light is also where shining moments take place. Each character reveals their backstory with a gender-shaping monologue in the vein of Chicago, incorporating the line “My grandmother wore a wig…”
The play opens with The Fates, a Shakespearean chorus of sorts—Faith (Dane Figueroa Edidi), Fay (Ysabel Jasa), and Fate (Melissa Victor) bop about fabulously, supporting the production like background singers—who set the scene for the central characters’ meeting on a New York City subway train by singing out the train’s movement (“Movin’, movin’, movin’ gotta keep movin’, always movin’… STOP!”). Eric (Jaysen Wright) and Wilson (Michael Rishawn)—AKA “Nina”— form an immediate attraction and Wilson asks Eric flat out: “Do you like boys?” But Eric, who is gay, is put off by Wilson’s cross-dressing identity and it’s a problem that may keep them apart.
Later, The Fates bring us to the House of Light where “Vogue is the official language,” Stonewall “has come crumbling down,” and “Paris is still burning.” Here, we learn that the House of Di’Abolique, a rival drag house, calls for a Cinderella ball at midnight, challenging the House of Light in a pseudo-turf war.
McCraney isn’t shy about exploring sexuality among his characters, yet it doesn’t feel cheap despite explicit moments and dialogue, like “I give brain like I went to Yale.” But it’s his imagination, when it comes to creating characters, that’s indelible and fairy tale-like. Wright and Rishawn are paired well as lovers. And although they aren’t engaged, in a strange way their story feels like a modern twist on Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?
The House’s DJ, Deity (Desmond Bing), does not approve of their romance and calls Eric out for his phoniness. But Eric is welcomed by Venus (Edwin Brown III), Deity’s ex-lover, and is eventually given the honorary drag name Angel. And Brown III shines as Venus. From every strut to every tear, he became the drag world’s Beyoncé.
Set designer Jason Sherwood creates a wholly original experience: The stage transforms from a runway to the inside of a subway car to a bedroom and into a drag house. In essence, the stage is a character of its own.
But there are brief moments during which the set design—although fabulous as it may be—becomes a burden. At times, it’s hard to see some of the actors’ entrances and exits on stage, but those are risks that come with a nontraditional set. Risks that, in the end, pay off under Gash’s deft direction.
Some of McCraney’s dialogue feels a little inside baseball, er, drag (“Messy queens trying to keep this old way running,” for example), but it breathes life into an underrepresented culture and shows why McCraney is perhaps the best dramatist in theater. It’s lyrical and punchy, a pseudo fairy tale with echoes of Shakespearan panache. Wig Out! is as fabulous as they come, proving that family really does come in all shades of fierceness.
At Studio Theatre to August 6. 1501 14th St. NW. $20-$75. (202) 332-3300. studiotheatre.org.