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The Voice of Lea DeLaria

August 23, 2017 5:00 am0 commentsViews: 25
Photo: Ricky Middlesworth     Image courtesy of Pixar Animation Studios

Photo: Ricky Middlesworth Image courtesy of Pixar Animation Studios

by Rebecca M. Alvin

If there’s one thing you can say about Lea DeLaria, it’s that she has got a voice. Whether it is her outspoken political commentary on Twitter, her in-your-face comedy, or the exceptional jazz she sings—or all of that combined— she has never been one to hold back. DeLaria has been performing in Provincetown since the 1980s, both as a comedian and as a singer, long before landing her current role on Netflix’s original series Orange is the New Black. She’ll be performing this week at Payomet Performing Arts Center, with her unique blend of world-class jazz and no holds barred comedy.

“Provincetown is like home for me,” DeLaria says by phone from Los Angeles. “Everybody in Provincetown knows me because I’ve been performing there for years… But now I have a huge universal voice. I have this voice now —my show is watched by 100 million people in a 190 countries, so to be able to use that visibility for good is just fantastic for me.”

DeLaria has performed all over the world, including on Broadway, in feature films, and of course, as Big Boo on Orange is the New Black, which is currently in production on its sixth season. Asked how a show like this, which follows the lives of an ensemble cast of characters who are inmates in a women’s prison, many of whom are lesbian and/or racial minorities, has found such a huge audience, DeLaria explains, “That’s why! Nobody ever sees themselves on television and here we are. We’re the everyman…. We touch a lot of people’s lives because they’ve never seen themselves on television before.”

More recently, DeLaria has made a splash in a different kind of production, with her performance as Miss Fritter, a loud-mouthed, pushy schoolbus that challenges the main car, Lightning McQueen, in a hilarious scene  in Pixar’s Cars 3. If it surprises you that DeLaria is in a kids’ movie, it shouldn’t. DeLaria says, “I find that really funny when people say stuff like that—I’m an actor. If you’ve seen Cars 3 and you’ve seen the character, of course they thought of me! That’s me, honey.”

Still, doing the film was a thrill for her.“Oh my God, it was so much fun! It’s out of my bucket list now. I mean it was always in my bucket list to do a Pixar movie. I mean, who doesn’t love a Pixar movie?”

Her acting credits are just one part of DeLaria’s accomplishments. She was the featured vocalist at the 50th anniversary edition of the Newport Jazz Festival, demonstrating just how strong her work as a musician is. She’s also released eight albums, each taking an unexpected spin on jazz. Her latest, House of David (2016), for example, reinterprets classic David Bowie songs in jazz style.

DeLaria has made a career for herself out of being herself, which is not always easy, particularly for female performers who get to this level of fame and attention. Never one to tone things down or try to fit into a more palatable mainstream persona, she has remained unequivocally true to her butch dyke identity and refers to herself as “a proud fat woman.” The face she puts forward for the mainstream looks very much the same as the one we’ve seen in Provincetown for close to three decades.

With the growing tensions in our country these days, DeLaria is characteristically ready to tell it like she sees it in response to the events that happened in Charlottesville, as well as the overall political climate and the presidency of Donald Trump. “There he is, the Emperor’s New Clothes; he’s as naked as can be. [Trump] is a complete racist and his administration is. He’s a homophobe, sexist – he’s all the ‘ists’. He’s a fascist, and we need to start using that word,” she says.

Never one to mince words, DeLaria says she’s also tired of a certain type of  liberalism that asks us to try to understand Trump supporters. “It’s something that I have been fighting my entire  life. In the ‘80s lesbians spent a whole lot of time trying to figure out how to use ‘woman’ without the ‘man’ in it. Remember that? The first one was w-o-m-y-n, then there was w-i-m-m-i-n. My favorite was w-o-m-b-e-n,” she laughs. “I just wanted to hit that girl whoever that was that came up with that. I just wanted to punch her right in the face. But the reality was we were spending all that time worrying about that when [a woman] was being raped around the corner! This is what I mean, this liberal crap.”

It’s DeLaria’s willingness to put herself out there with brash, unapologetic statements —often in the form of hilarious comedy—that is the cornerstone of her appeal. She says what many feel on a gut level.

“I reach a lot of people with my angry, in your face, screaming, shouting, hysterical stand-up comedy. I reach people that Ellen DeGeneres can’t reach with her gentle comedy because the people that listen to me are my people and the people that listen to her are her people, but it takes both of us, in our two different ways to  affect change, so we shouldn’t be pointing at each other and saying don’t do this, don’t do that,” she says.

But being a part of the solution isn’t just about responding to what’s happened and speaking truth to power. DeLaria’s work on Orange is the New Black is especially important because it reaches such a wide audience and in the age of Twitter and Instagram, it has brought fans and celebrities together in ways not possible before. It’s one of the big changes DeLaria has seen in her life thanks to that show.

“There are a lot of young women reaching out to me about being gay and not knowing what to do on my [private messages].  I get everything from ‘thank you so much for Orange is the New Black. Because of your character Big Boo, I was able to tell my family and they’re accepting me.’ I get those, all the way to ‘I can’t tell my family or I’ll be stoned to death.’ This is where we are,” she says. “That is defintely one way [the show] has absolutely changed my life,” DeLaria adds. “That’s a fantastic change. And then of course, I get a lot more hot, young girls!”

Lea DeLaria performs at Payomet Performing Arts Center, 29 Old Dewline Rd., North Truro, on Saturday, August 26, 8 p.m. For tickets ($55-$95) call 508.487.5400 or visit payomet.org.