Harvey Fierstein’s Casa Valentina Invites Guests to Explore the Girls Within

By Marc Acito
11 May 2014

Harvey Fierstein
Fierstein continued performing in drag in New York's downtown theatre scene, particularly with Charles Ludlam's Ridiculous Theatrical Company in shows like an all-male The Trojan Women. This commitment to drag has dominated Fierstein's career, not just with Torch Song and La Cage, but also his Tony-winning turn as Edna Turnblad in Hairspray and his book for Kinky Boots.

 

But perhaps it was an early drag performance in a club in Montreal that made the biggest impact. "I finished my number," Fierstein said. " left the stage, and I was arrested." Fierstein had violated Canada's "masquerade law," which required a female impersonator to take off his wig to prove he was a man. Fierstein was released when the police discovered his shoulder-length hair was his own. It inspired him to have the character of Albin pull off his wig during La Cage.

The danger Fierstein narrowly avoided in Canada permeates Casa Valentina. Laws against cross-dressing had been on the books in since the 1840s and were still enforced in the 1950s and '60s. Even mailing photographs of someone cross-dressed violated federal obscenity laws, punishable by imprisonment, a threat that plays a significant role in the plot of Casa Valentina.

This paranoia causes the characters of the play to debate whether to align themselves with the nascent gay civil rights movement. As one character posits: "Fifty years from now, when homosexuals are still scuttling about as the back-alley vermin of society, cross dressing will be as everyday as cigarette smoking."

"I know," Fierstein said, laughing, "How fucking wrong was he?"

Still, exploring the alienation of these men caused Fierstein to re-evaluate his own sense of isolation as a self-described "gay separatist."

"Doing this research made me realize that as soon as you say 'I belong with this group,' you're cutting off the rest of the world. Coming together because we think we have something in common only separates us from everyone else."

Which is perhaps why the only men in the theatre wearing dresses are onstage and not in the audience. But those men onstage can make a big cultural impact, as evidenced by a photo Fierstein proudly shares of two eight-year-old boys at a recent performance of Kinky Boots. Both are wearing dresses. Both look happy.



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