by Steve Desroches
A lot can happen in a decade. We chronicle our lives by them, be it culture, politics, or personal histories. The Eighties were the “Me” decade while the Roaring Twenties and Swinging Sixties really need no explanation. So when two musicians and performers born ten years apart get together, their shared love of art may connect them, but at times there can be a reminder of a generation gap of sorts defined by the chasm of progress and the subsequent differences of experiences and perceptions.
Johnny Blazes and Brian King, two well-known and respected neo-cabaret artists, are bringing their musical exploration of their respective identities and journey toward them in their show Do You Queer What I Queer? as part of the Afterglow Festival, which brings the best and the brightest of underground and cutting-edge live performance to Provincetown every September. The ingeniously named show tells the stories of King, 42, born and raised on Cape Ann in Gloucester, and Blazes, 32, who grew up in Boston. Being born in 1974 versus 1984 made for big differences, as did geography, family, and community. And perhaps the first noticeable difference is the freedom to find ones own sexual and gender identity and then have the language available to reflect it accurately.
“The first thing is Johnny is a non-binary queer and I’m a gay man,” says King. “Johnny grew up in a time when there was a Youth Pride. When I was growing up I’d go to a BAGLY [now the Boston Alliance of Gay and Lesbian Bisexual Transgender Youth] meeting and there’d be five people there. When Johnny went there were like 50. I do think that’s the biggest difference. There are GSAs [Gay-Straight Alliances] now on Cape Ann, but it was the opposite when I was growing up.”
It’s those types of differences that make up the backbone of the show. Even when there may be a shared love for a particular song, the reason may be quite different due to their age and station in life at the time it came out. And there are songs that are individually important that weave their way into each performer’s life story. For King, it’s “As Long As He Needs Me” a torch song sung by the character Nancy in the musical Oliver. When in school, King had a clandestine relationship with a bully who would torture him by day, but after school it was quite a different story. So the song reminds him of those days of codependency before he even knew what such a thing was.
For Blazes, the song is “Neverland” from the musical Peter Pan. As a child Blazes watched a VHS copy of one of the NBC telecasts of the Broadway musical starring Mary Martin over and over again. Blazes instantly recognized that Martin was a woman playing the part of a little boy who never grows up. While Blazes’ parents explained things such as vocal register and youthful features as the reasons why a woman would play Peter Pan, what resonated was that in theater things like gender didn’t matter. It helped Blazes realize that gender is a thing you play, that gender is a performance and is mutable, Blazes says. It was both personally and professionally a revelation. Through song and storytelling, Do You Queer What I Queer? brings to the stage that which inspires self-awareness to these two performers in a way that many LGBTQ people of any age can relate to.
“It’s sort of the Moth Radio Hour, and singing and songs,” says King of the show. “Songs that were cultural touchstones for us with our queer identity as children processing our emotions about our queer identity.”
Within the show there are jokes about youthful obliviousness to musicians and songs the older generation reveres, as well as the dismissal of the music of the younger generation by the previous. Take the musical Rent. For Blazes, who was 16 at the time, it was a refreshing example of queer representation on the stage. For King, who was 26, it was an irritating glamorization of the lives many of his friends were actually living. How could two people take “five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes” so differently? It depends on how many of those minutes you’ve actually lived. But there is one song for which the glitter-infused duo is completely simpatico: “The Time Warp” from the 1975 cult classic The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
“It’s a rite of passage to go see The Rocky Horror Picture Show when growing up queer,” says King. “Someone takes you and you like ‘gasp.’ Then it all makes sense.”
Johnny Blazes and Brian King present Do You Queer What I Queer? at the Crown and Anchor, 247 Commercial St. as part of the Afterglow Festival on Wednesday, September 14 at 9 p.m. For tickets ($30) and information, go to the box office, call 508.487.4569, or visit onlyatthecrown.com.