When you come out as queer, the public announcement is only part of the process. What may have seemed daunting at first — telling family and friends — in retrospect was just the start. After that external reckoning, an internal dialogue continues and picks up steam. You’ve just declared yourself to be a part of a community, but where exactly will you fit into it, if at all? The white noise that used to rest in the back of your head asking “Am I normal?” doesn’t just vanish because you’re out of the closet.
In The Compton’s Cafeteria Riot, the playwrights Mark Nassar, Collette LeGrande, and Donna Personna transform that self-flagellating thought into a self-accepting one. Produced by the Tenderloin Museum, this evening of immersive theater deconstructs the idea of normalcy and pulverizes it with a high stiletto heel. The play takes place inside the New Village Cafe on Polk Street. But the space has been reimagined as a famous San Francisco diner, Gene Compton’s Cafeteria, which was located in the Tenderloin at 101 Taylor Street (at Turk) from 1954 to 1972.
Once you step inside the cafe you’re meant to travel back in time to the 1960s. Waitresses are dressed in bright yellow, starched uniforms. The straight-laced owner grumbles something snarky about hippies. After one of them seats you at a table or at the counter, they take your order and serve you a carb-heavy breakfast, the kind you’d usually order to assuage a hangover. Until Compton’s Cafeteria Riot gets going, the actors playing the restaurant staff ease the audience into their world. They’re in character but not in a heavy-handed or off-putting way. It’s like stepping onto the set of a TV series like Westworld, where the atmosphere, including the period appropriate set design, is welcoming enough that it persuades you into believing the artificial is real.
The play tells the story of a riot that took place at Compton’s one late night in 1966. Briefly, the diner was considered an after-hours haven for the queer community in general, and transgender women and drag queens in particular. But tensions rose that night between the staff and their customers until someone called the police. Back then, it was illegal for a biological male to dress as a woman. Instead of complying with the law and allowing themselves to be bullied, abused and arrested, the transgender women and drag queens rebelled and united in the streets outside, breaking the restaurant’s plate glass windows in the process. Susan Stryker and Victor Silverman’s 2005 documentary Screaming Queens is an excellent primer on that history-making confrontation and provided eyewitness accounts and background information for the production.
Actors who had been waiting outside began to enter the diner one by one as we finished our breakfast. The main narrator Vicki (Kelly J. Kelly) commented on, and stood apart from, the plot by placing a younger version of herself, played by Clair Farley, at Compton’s that night. Vicki also introduces the other members of the cast as they found places to sit or stand while intermittently chatting with the audience — but always in character. Suki (Jaylyn Abergas) brought a date with her, a sailor named Frankie (Drew Olvey). Activists Adrian (Mandela Msanii) and Dixie (Jacob Ritts) were recruiting people to join their militant queer youth group. And other supporting characters like Collette (Pleasure Bynight) and Nicki (Lavale Davis) recount their stories too.
The stories sometimes take shape as monologues or dialogues. Sometimes the entire cast responded to a conflict between Suki and the younger Vicki. What starts to happen, character by character, is a dawning of their individual and collective consciousness. By talking about the shame and humiliation of losing jobs in the straight world, or their isolation, they gradually reclaim their self-worth. And when a particularly vile cop attacks one of them, they realize how much more power they have by joining in the fight together. Like Harvey Fierstein’s play Casa Valentina, Compton’s doesn’t spend time distinguishing between transgender women and drag queens. Vicki says they just called themselves queer, meaning they were all in the same boat.
The Compton’s Cafeteria Riot does however accomplish something new. It not only dramatizes the specific inequalities that transgender women and drag queens have endured but also portrays them as heroic and courageous. The play makes a poignant and credible case to do away with the idea of normalcy, and that queer people are no longer beholden to an antiquated idea that’s so flawed and dishonest.
The Compton’s Cafeteria Riot, Thursdays-Saturdays, through March 17, 8 p.m., at New Village Cage, 1426 Polk St. $60; tenderloinmuseum.org