BY NAVEEN KUMAR
Harvey Fierstein knows that a play about straight transvestites is bound to raise eyebrows, and he’s hoping it does more than that. Casa Valentina, which opened on Broadway last night at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Friedman Theatre, has already riled up some severe backlash. “I wrote a play that you’re either going to walk away from with all of your prejudices pushed aside or brought forward,” says Fierstein.
But the play is in fact based on true stories, from men who frequented the Chevalier d’Eon Resort in the Catskills during the 50s and 60s. Think of it as summer camp for guys who prefer makeup kits to toolboxes and makeovers to car repairs. Most of the guests were family men, who escaped there to “express the girl within,” donning women’s clothes, sharing meals and performing sing-alongs.
Casa Valentina begins as what might have been a typical summer at the resort, but for the arrival of Charlotte (played by Reed Birney), a character based on Virginia Prince. An activist for transgendered men and the publisher of Transvestia magazine, Prince was also virulently anti-homosexual.
In the play, Charlotte attempts to recruit the guests of Casa Valentina to her nationally recognized sorority of transvestite men—on the condition they agree to ban gays from their ranks. If a straight man in a dress is the first hard pill to swallow, a perfectly coiffed and intensely homophobic one is even more outrageous.
I spoke to Harvey about gay people’s responses to the play, if homophobia can ever be justified, and whether you should feel bad about saying ‘tranny.’
Naveen Kumar: What was your initial approach to writing this play?
Harvey Fierstein: I knew about the resort from my childhood, because my father grew up in the Catskills. Years later I saw the book of photographs, Casa Susanna [published in 2005 by Michael Hurst and Robert Swope, who discovered a wealth of snaps from the resort at a New York flea market]. [A group of producers] came to me and begged me to write a play. I thought, you know it’s cute—a bunch of straight guys go up and put on dresses, but really? A play?
But there’s something about the photographs. There’s a certain calmness, a happiness and a freedom [to them]. It’s not like looking at pictures of drag queens. There’s a nervous energy to drag queens—they’re projecting forward, they’re pushing out at you, they’re trying to show you something. They’re not being. These people in these photographs, there’s a sort of relaxed happiness, which I didn’t understand.
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