In 1955 their meeting in a San Francisco apartment could have resulted in all of them being arrested, losing their jobs, and being shunned by family and friends. In 2015, their having a special place in the City by the Bay to meet was deemed as no longer needed (or financially viable).
In a matter of sixty years, was it time to declare triumphantly, “Face it, we won!” as does Natalie the night that the last lesbian bar, The Lexington Club, was closing in San Francisco on April 30, 2015? Had the wildest dreams in fact been met of that group who first met in 1955 to form the country’s first lesbian civil/political organization, the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB)? Patricia Cotter floats these and other timely questions as she juxtapositions these two historical events as the two acts of her highly captivating, wonderfully hilarious, and deeply touching new play, The Daughters, now receiving its world premiere as part of San Francisco Playhouse’s “Sandbox Series.”
The stingers have been mixed; pigs-in-the-blanket are laid out on the tray; and mixed nuts are heaped in the bowl on the coffee table. Crocheted doilies are looking perfect on the easy chair’s arms as everything is ready for the guests to arrive – including the especially neatly stacked, printed, and proposed bylaws.
One twenty-two-year-old girl, Evelyn, is already on her second drink but looking nervous that no one else has come as hosts Peggy and Mal try to reassure her that surely others are on their way to this first meeting of the DOB. Just as Evelyn is about to leave – saying she has 6:30 a.m. mass tomorrow because her mom says that helps keep her good with God – there is a knock at the door. In enter Shorty and Griff – both in short, cropped off hair and both looking extremely non-feminine in their nicely pressed, masculine outfits. Mal is about to tell them this is not that kind of social gathering for women dressed as men; but then she notices Evelyn is now very much ready to stay as she makes eyes with Griff who is wearing a pin-stripped suit, tie, and dressy, black shoes.
And thus begins what Mal has carefully planned to be a “political” meeting and the beginning of a movement for change but what is quickly turning into a party as Shorty pulls out more booze and as Griff flips a Patti Page record onto the turntable and asks a googly-eyed Evelyn to dance. As Mal becomes more and more frustrated trying to go over the rules of the DOB and to outline the purposes and bylaws, even the sympathetic woman with whom she shares her bed and life, Peggy, is having trouble not grinning and swinging her flowing, fifties skirt to the music. Tension is rising as more drinks are also being poured until all come to a frozen halt when a loud, persistent knocking is heard at the apartment’s door.
It is 1955; and call it a meeting or a party, what these lesbians are doing is completely illegal. If those are police at the door who have been tipped off about the evening, all of them could be in great jeopardy. Lucky for them and to their open-mouthed, all-white surprises (it is 1955), the intruder is a beautiful, stylishly dressed black woman, who introduces herself as Vivian from New York and who is looking for what she hopes is a “secret lesbian sorority.”
In a time and a city where there was no easy or legal way for lesbians (or gays) to gather – much less to cross-dress, dance, or behave romantically – there is little wonder that the few who came to Peggy’s and Mal’s that first evening had many mixed and conflicting agendas. Martha Brigham’s portrayal of the serious, stiff-shouldered, and persistent-in-purpose Mal is nothing short of outstanding in every respect. (This is especially noteworthy since Martha Brigham only had two-days notice to become part of this cast after original cast member, Katie Rubin, had to drop out due to injury.)
Doing all she can to ignore the giggly, flirty behaviors of the other women, Mal continues to try to force the others into “an agenda, strategy and a lesbian political movement.” As she admits over a secret cig on the patio with Vivian, “It’s frustrating to want to change the world and not know how.”
Mal and the more easy-going, open-to-a-passing-flirt Peggy (Erin Anderson) live together as a couple and represent the actual founders of the DOB, Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon. Together, they have a dream that Mal poses to the group: “Can you imagine a world where we can truly be ourselves?”
Vivian (Jeunée Simon) wants to support Mal but as a married woman (o a closeted gay man, she is also looking for a girl who will love her for who she really is. Shorty (Em Lee Reaves) is a constant and flippant jokester (“Girls, you can’t live with them, and you can’t live with them”) who keeps referring to Mal as “Boss,” much to everyone’s amusement except Mal. The young Evelyn (Olivia Levine) is ecstatic to be in the room (“This is the first time I’ve ever been around girls like me”), and she only wants to drink and dance and continue to “feel so normal.” She and the handsome Griff (Molly Shaiken) cannot take their eyes off each other and are first to jump at the chance to play “Spin the Bottle.”
The evening is turning out for Mal “very different from what I imagined,” but Shorty tells her not to be so hard on herself: “We’re just the ones who showed up.” But as we watch, we as audience and one-by-one each of them begins to realize that – agenda or no agenda being followed – in their gathering on this fateful night, history is in fact in the making.
When in the second act the scene jumps from the homey apartment to a Mission dive bar complete with graffiti-covered walls where women leave their phone numbers and messages (all fantastically designed by Randy Wong-Westbrooke and given authentic properties by Stephanie Dittbern), we enter just as bar-tender Spike (Em Lee Reaves) is standing on the bar declaring “the last call of the last night” of the last lesbian bar in San Francisco. Natalie (Erin Anderson) thinks maybe the closing is just “part of our evolution” while her girlfriend Gina (Martha Brigham) insists with stubborn passion that lesbian bars are still just as essential as community centers and women’s health clinics for the continued well-being of the lesbian community.
Ani (Olivia Levine) is a twenty-something who has wandered in from Walnut Creek just because this is the last night of a bar she has never seen the need to go. After all, to her the “lesbian thing” is “just nothing like awesome” and is “kinda quaint.” Under pressure from Gina whose temper is near boiling, Ani says she generally goes by “gender queer,” sending Gina over the top and into near spasms.
Fem-friend Leslie (Jeuneé Simon) who came to the closing with Gina and Natalie dressed to kill (thanks to the evening’s costume designer, Chanterelle Grover) is just looking for a hot butch type and is getting upset because none seems to come to the Lexington any more. While she is drinking and looking and contemplating the wet t-shirt contest, Gina continues to give the fifth degree to Ani, who is now in turn giving eyes to Spike. And then walks in Gina’s ex, Jen (Molly Shaiken) who in a smart suit lets it be known the name is now actually “Jefferson.” And with that, the final night of The Lexington really heats up for a climatic closing.
Director Jessica Holt takes the tight script of Patricia Cotter and maximizes its power and punch through exacting, clever, and often funny touches (as well as a number of hot and sexy scenes). The use of the six actors playing double roles between Acts One and Two is an added bonus of the two one-act plays that each have their own beginning, middle, and end and could easily exist alone. We have the pleasure of seeing actors take on somewhat likened characters in the two time periods and can chuckle at the similarities while also admiring the differences.
And while the two acts could be their own plays, together they offer a meaningful and important look at how a civil rights movement begins in the most unlikely of ways and then asks the question of how long such a movement is needed before giving way to entirely new thrusts for different and maybe conflicting freedoms. Labels, practices, and social norms that one generation sees as defining and liberating, another generation views as confining, outdated, and irrelevant. Is it outmoded and even self-limiting to define oneself as a lesbian (or a gay or a bi or …), or is it short-sighted and dangerous not to see the necessity still to keep the sisterhood alive, to provide safe places for a minority to gather away from the majority, and to reject that full assimilation – and thus perhaps disappearance – is the ultimate goal?
These and many other questions begin to pop to the surface as we watch both the beginning of a movement and the closing of one of its beloved institutions once the movement has won many hard-fought victories. San Francisco Playhouse provides the first, full production in what will hopefully be many more follow-up stagings of Patricia Cotter’s The Daughters. There is much to be learned and much to contemplate in seeing history played out so realistically, authentically, and hilariously in front of us. This is a world premiere that deserves long legs in the future.
Rating: 5 E
The Daughters continues through November 2, 2019 as part of the Sandbox Series of San Francisco Playhouse at The Creativity Theatre, The Children’s Creativity Museum, 221 4th Street, San Francisco. Tickets are available at http://sfplayhouse.org/ or by calling the box office at 415-677-9596.
Photos by Jessica Palopoli