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[Editor's note: after this review was posted, BSR was informed that the two men mentioned below were audience plants and knew Chapman planned to approach them. No sexual assault occurred during the performance and the article has been edited to reflect that new information. We apologize for the error and for any negative impact it may have had on the performer and production.]
reTHEATER presents John Cameron Mitchell and Steven Trask’s cult classic Hedwig and the Angry Inch at the Ruba Club in a production that has just been extended another week. But the night I saw the show, certain events happened that make it difficult for me to review the work at all.
John Cameron Mitchell and Steven Trask’s sublime reflection on identity tells the story of Hansel, a boy from East Berlin who undergoes a botched gender-confirmation surgery in order to marry his lover, Luther, an American GI. The result of the surgery is the titular "angry inch," which leaves Hansel as Hedwig, a person between sexes.
Trans isn't drag
Although she presents as female, it’s important to note that Hedwig is not a drag queen and this is not a drag show. Hedwig is a story about a person projecting an identity that helps her cope with her situation, and it’s the stripping down of that projected identity that brings the truly cathartic moments at the end of her story.
Still, artists from the world of drag are drawn to the role. Dito Van Reigersberg (a.k.a. Martha Graham Cracker) played Hedwig at the Trocadero in 2008, and reTHEATER’s production stars Braden Chapman, also known as Mimi Imfurst, a RuPaul’s Drag Race All-Star. Chapman, I later learned, was accused in May of sexually harassing at least two contestants in Drag Wars, a major Philadelphia drag competition.
I didn’t know about the accusations going into the show, but I did look them up when I got home because, during the song “Sugar Daddy,” where Hansel realizes his sexual power over Luther, Chapman ordered a male audience member to his knees and then pushed the man’s face into his crotch. He then sat on another male audience member’s lap and kissed him on the mouth.
I don’t know how to report objectively how it felt to watch this happen. My face got hot and my chest felt tight. I felt scared I would be touched, terrified for those men, and full of shame for witnessing it. Anyone who is, or has loved, a survivor of sexual violence knows the feeling I describe.
I can hear the pushback even as I type. It’s just a show. That’s drag culture. It’s just for fun. I’m repressed and uptight and this stuffy culture is out of control. I feel the weight of what’s acceptable deeply now, and I felt it in the Ruba Club. Despite all our talk about a #metoo moment, you can shove someone’s face in your crotch without visible consent in a crowded theater, and the audience will whoop and laugh.
All I could think is, what if they were survivors? It’s not okay because they were men. It’s not okay, period.
Throughout the rest of the production, I was a little frozen. I could talk about the excellent design choices or the stellar band or reflect on what didn’t work, but that just feels wrong. It’s hard for anything else to matter.
The last song in the show, “Midnight Radio,” speaks to Hedwig’s self-knowledge and redemption. It’s an anthem for people who feel othered and broken. Many times I’ve joyfully thrown my arms in the air to the refrain, “Lift up your hands,” and felt catharsis and community. Last night, my hands were leaden at my sides.
To be part of the chorus would be accepting complicity. Sexually touching strangers without their clear permission doesn’t have to be part of this show. Based on the rampant ad-libbing in the performance, I’m guessing it wasn’t planned by director Josh Hitchens. reTHEATER’s Hedwig would be a totally different experience without that element. But that wasn’t the experience I had. Being there made me feel sad and small and scared. That’s all I’ve got.
[Author's note: As a person commenting on art, I stand by the experience I had. I love Hedwig and the Angry Inch. It’s probably because the work is so deeply personal to me that I felt particularly vulnerable while watching it. And I was scared, and I was worried about the men, because I didn’t know that they had consented. I think the audience interactions were designed to look spontaneous, and that is what happened. My experience of the show was still damaged and I still think it should have been done differently.
Much more importantly, I have a moral responsibility to Braden Chapman to apologize for the implication that he assaulted audience members when he did not. The company has assured us that those audience members knew what was coming. I can only guess how painful it must have been for Chapman to be accused of something he didn’t do, and I am deeply and sincerely sorry for that. It was rash and wrong to link what has happened in the past to what I assumed was happening that night. I wish I had waited for word from my friend, director Josh Hitchens, whom I trust, before I published anything. I have learned from this, and I will be much more careful in the future. That doesn’t change the harm to Braden Chapman, however, and for that, there is no excuse.]
To read Mark Cofta's review, click here.
To read Braden Chapman's response, click here.
What, When, Where
Hedwig and the Angry Inch. By John Cameron Mitchell, Josh Hitchens directed. reTHEATER. Through June 30, 2018, at the Ruba Club, 416 Green Street, Philadelphia. retheater.org.
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