Queer History on Stage
A Review of The View UpStairs by Max Vernon
A few months ago I attended a panel discussion at The New School on queer religion. One of the speakers, a middle-aged gay man, referred to the LGBTQ community as ‘family,’ before turning to ask the younger audience if that term is still used.
No, it is not, they responded. We do not call the LGBTQ community ‘family’ because we don’t need to. We no longer live in a world where we need to call each other family and create homes in public spaces. However, we have already forgotten that it wasn’t always this way.
The View UpStairs is a radical new musical by 28-year-old Max Vernon that mixes queer history with songs, love, and comedy. Taking place at the UpStairs Lounge in 1973-New Orleans, it is a show that connects us through time and generations to a forgotten past. On the last Sunday of June 1973, an arsonist attacked the UpStairs Lounge during a church service being held there. The gay bar was burned down in a swiftly moving fire that trapped patrons trying to escape, killing 32 people and injuring 15 more. The fire at the UpStairs Lounge was the deadliest attack on the queer community up until the Pulse shooting of 2016, yet it is relatively unknown.
We are led back in time by Wes (Jeremy Pope), a 20-something fashion designer from the present day who is dissatisfied with his inability to make a noticeable mark on the world. Thrown back in time to 1973, Wes is quick to realize that the world of today is very different from that of 44 years ago. 1973 was a time when a gay bar could also be a church and a home — because that was the only home queer people had.
In the midst of its heavy subject matter, the tear-jerking and thought-provoking moments, The View UpStairs is filled with humor, centering a blossoming romance between two young men from different eras. Although widely different because of their upbringing in contrasting times, Wes and Patrick (Taylor Frey) fall in love instantly, and throughout the show work to build a bridge between generations. It is a love story as well as a history, and the chemistry between Pope and Frey makes the show feel incredibly authentic. The View UpStairs is set in a small theatre, which creates a sense of intimacy between the actors and the audience. Members of the audience become patrons of the bar, and are incorporated into the jokes, antics, and community of the cast. It is this excellent casting that allows for the sense of realism; the characters come to life in brilliant color and compel us to laugh and cry with their joy and heartbreak. Grammy award winning Nathan Lee Graham undeniably gets the most laughs and cheers with his interpretation of the old queen, Willie.
The musical links past and present through the longing to be loved, to be seen, and to shake the feeling of shame that seems to stick around the LGBTQ community no matter how much we try to silence that voice. It shows us that, while today we may find connections in different ways, we aren’t that much different from what we used to be. The View UpStairs is layered with jokes about the queer community, historical education, and jibes at our current pop culture. In a world that often views itself as drastically different from the past, it’s important to remember how we came to be who we are.
Vernon has succeeded in creating a musical that is authentic, funny, and deeply resonant. No one can leave the theatre untouched. Along with its vibrant and emotional tones, it is a show that sparks discussion about unsung heroes, queer history, and LGBTQ movements in the 21st century. The View UpStairs brings 1973 to life again, and is a must-see for any and every queer kid. I strongly advise anyone wanting to go to read up on the UpStairs Lounge arson attack beforehand, as this knowledge will contribute to the viewing experience. It is a genius musical that gives us an opportunity to utilize the past in creating our future.
Queer kids today are quick to jump on older LGBTQ generations for being narrow-minded and not being up to date with gender terminology, or the vast array of sexual and gender identities that are beginning to be recognized and explored. Perhaps we are quick to judge because we don’t understand their historical relevance, and thus are often unable to recognize the significance of their lives. The View UpStairs fills this gap by reminding today’s queer kids about one of the most powerful ways to connect with what it meant to be LGBTQ between the times of Stonewall and the AIDS crisis: the bar. The View UpStairs honors all the erased heroes who came before us, and who paved the way for a life where closets are for clothes and pride parades are celebrations rather than demonstrations.
In the current political climate, it is more important than ever to learn our history, as we make sure we won’t let them bring us back to how it used to be. The View UpStairs is a brilliant and fun way to do just that.
Victims of the UpStairs Lounge fire: Joseph Henry (Joe) Adams, Reginald Eugene (Reggie) Adams Jr., Guy David Owen Anderson, Joseph William (Bill) Bailey, Luther Thomas Boggs, Louis Horace Broussard, Hurbert Dean (Hugh) Cooley, Donald Walter Dunbar, Adam Roland Fontenot, David Stuart Gary, Horace Winslow (Skip) Getchell, John Thomas Golding Sr., Gerald Hoyt Gordon, Glenn Richard (Dick) Green, James Walls (Jim) Hambrick, Kenneth Paul Harrington, Rev. William Ros (Bill) Larson, Ferris Jerome LeBlanc, Robert Keith (Bobby) Lumpkin, Leon Richard Maples, George Steven (Bud) Matyi, Clarence Joseph McCloskey Jr., Duane George (Mitch) Mitchell, Larry Dean Stratton, Eddie Hosea Warren, James Curtis Warren, Willie Inez Whatley Warren, Dr. Perry Lane Waters Jr., Douglas Maxwell Williams Jr., unidentified white male, unidentified white male, unidentified white male.
The View UpStairs will be performed on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday at 7:00 PM, Friday at 6:30 PM and 10:00 PM, Saturday at 6:00 PM and 10:00 PM and Sunday at 6:00 PM. The show is at The Lynn Redgrave Theater at Culture Project (45 Bleecker Street, New York, NY 10012). Tickets, which are available at www.TheViewUpStairs.com, are $45-90. Student Rush tickets are available at the Box Office one hour prior to curtain for $35 (cash only).