Sum of Us - May 25, 2007

It is not often that you get to see a show that includes strap on dildos, a lesson in a relatively unknown history, rock, blues and Joan of Arc but in SUM OF US Michelle Matlock and INNERPRINCESS (whose members are Becca Blackwell, Lee Frisari, and Tanisha Thompson) present an admirable work in its early stages - and yes it includes all of the above and then some.

The premise of the show is a rock band's late-night rehearsal in a former speakeasy. The band's members are, described in broadest terms, gender-benders - the location, their material, and their life concerns and issues summon the spirit of Gladys Bentley a famous performer during the Harlem Renaissance.

The mixture of rock with early 20th century blues works, though there is not nearly enough of it. In fact the piece works best when there is strong interaction between Gladys and the women of the band. Unfortunately this too is at a minimum, but as this is a work in progress I imagine there will be addendums to the show in future. The current running time is slightly over an hour and there is no dearth of material to be explored here so expanding and adding would certainly be welcomed. 

Michelle Matlock is an impressive performer who not only entertains but sincerely wishes to educate her audiences, this is something she does extremely well. While you are busy laughing or tapping your toes, you are learning. The history of homosexual performers is not something that is often addressed in entertainment, possibly because of the closet, possibly because of a simple lack of historical awareness. But Matlock has clearly done her homework - and she's going to share it with us. It seems this is a special love of hers, as she does something similar addressing a different historical stereotype in recounting the history of Mammy in her solo show The Mammy Project. Sort of a Cliff Notes history lesson with music. And I do mean that asa compliment: we learn best when we are moved and entertained.

The performers of Inner Princess each have a different style and appeal and they work well together. There is a genuine camaraderie and sense of humor here and their music is infectious. Bass player Becca has the most one-on-one interaction with Gladys and her performance as Billy Tipton, while brief, is particularly strong. It doesn't hurt that she bears a remarkable resemblance to the late Tipton.

Each band member has her own series of short anecdotes illustrating issues of gender confusion and discrimination and these too are shining moments. Drummer Lee Frisari's delivery as she tells how a recently incarcerated man tried to pick her up (regardless of her gender) at the health food store where she works is particularly funny "He asked me about calcium. I told him about calcium. 'Are you a man or a woman,' he asked me. I kept telling him about calcium."

Guitarist Tanisha's anecdote about trying to get a hot date home in a cab before the fire burned out is frustrating and sad. And the injustice of someone not getting laid because of a cab is infuriating. And Bentley's sorrow at having to drop the drag, and thus lose her true identity, due to McCarthyism is fairly heartbreaking.

There are some rough spots, but as the performers freely admit after the performance as they ask for objective audience feedback, this is still a work in progress. The beginning is a little weak and amorphous, and the end, while fun and uplifting comes a touch too soon. I wanted to know more about the current characters and their historical counterparts, hopefully in the next incarnation the Sum of Us will add it all together.

p.s. ladies, I have to vote to ditch the blue strap on... that bad boy's a little on the small side (just my opinion.) Sum of Us