Tree House Lounge (tickets available here)
Wednesday, July 15 at 8:45 p.m. Saturday, July 18 at 7:15 p.m. Friday, July 24 at 8:45 p.m. Sunday, July 26 at 6:50 p.m.
They Say: A darkly humorous exploration of the obstacles minority actors face in American theatre. No AIDS No Maids mocks the archetypal and two-dimensional characters women of color have played for over 50 years, and disassociates homosexuality from the narrative of disease.
Rachel’s Take: No AIDS No Maids is a work in progress; after the performance, playwright and sole actor Dee Dee Batteast told us this was her first time performing it for a real audience and asked us for our thoughts on the show. It is a ferocious start from a compelling performer and thinker, but it’ll ripen into its theatricality after a few more workshops.
For example, the titular roles about which Batteast complains (the Mammy/help, the gay man dying of AIDS) are, she says at the top of the show, fading from popularity. They’re being replaced with the Best Friend, who might be a black woman or a gay man, but who exists to provide advice and sass for the lead white woman who just doesn’t know what she wants. So No AIDS No Maids is a great title, but not exactly the right one for where the piece is now.
Batteast is funny and incisive, and the most theatrical parts of the show are the best. When she puts on a minstrel getup and sings that she has suffered in order to make us laugh, it’s grotesque, but also genuinely funny. (She revealed afterward that the minstrel character is called “The Thing.”) A hysterical bit skewering auditions she’s been to, where the casting associate keeps tactlessly asking for a more “urban” read on the character until Batteast is punctuating the dialogue with “DAYUM”s and “guuuuurrl”s, makes her point quite cleverly.
But the piece is less than an hour long, including a Q-and-A afterward (that we were assured we did not have to stay for), and still Batteast repeated herself (and James Baldwin) three times and gave an unnecessary disclaimer about not speaking to the gay male experience. She showed us two reels of clips to illustrate her point — and then played each again. (The clips are of Magical Negro archetypes (The Green Mile, etc.) and selfless gay or black best friend characters from Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, My Best Friend’s Wedding, Sex and the City, et al.) We also saw slides of Wikipedia’s entries on the tropes more than once.
How easily and thoroughly Hollywood ignores minorities is thankfully being pointed out in many ways right now — vintage Cap Fringer Dylan Marron‘s Every Single Word Spoken Tumblr is an example. Batteast did ask for suggestions at the end of the show, so here goes.
I want more Batteast, basically. I would love to see her do the monologues she feels like she can’t do for auditions. I would love an example of parts for gay men and black women that she feels break out of stereotypes, if there are any, and for her to write some if there aren’t. I would love more painful-but-funny bits of what it’s like to be a minority actor struggling for a paycheck at the expense of her principles.
At one point Batteast cited Clybourne Park as a show she and her gay-white-man-actor-best-friend could be in together where she wasn’t a maid, because it wasn’t set in the ’50s or ’60s and her friend wouldn’t have to play straight or die of AIDS. But Clybourne Park actually doesn’t hit all those check marks: Its first act has a black maid and is set in 1959. It’s sad, but it makes me all the more grateful Batteast did this show.
See it if: You’re interested in theater or movies and what they say about us, and don’t mind an unpolished project.
Skip it if: You want to wait until the show’s in its final form.
Photo courtesy of Dee Dee Batteast