by Steve Desroches
A group of men assemble in secret, deep in the rural confines of the Catskill Mountains each summer in a congregation of mutual understanding, support, and safety as they explore their full gender identities. Some are discovering they are transgender, while others embrace an identity as a cross dresser, a challenging prospect as they are all heterosexual, and for years have believed an untrue narrative that gender and sexuality were related, clouded by their own homophobia. It a slice of paradise in a world that is hostile to women and femininity as well as those who don’t adhere to strict gender roles. What they are doing is not only dangerous, making them vulnerable to discrimination and violence, but it’s also illegal.
This story sounds very much as if it’s from the headlines of today. However, it’s a true account from the early 1960s that Tony-Award-winning playwright Harvey Fierstein adapted for his play Casa Valentina, which is making its Cape Cod premiere at the Provincetown Theater this week.
“From the moment I read it I wanted to do it, as it’s so relevant,” says artistic director David Drake. “It’s all about now.”
After a period of progress—both politically and culturally—in the United States in regards to LGBTQ equality, women’s rights, and a loosening of gender expectations and limitations, the country has entered a ferocious backlash these past few years, with hundreds of pieces of legislation in state houses, as well as in Washington, D.C., that seek to enforce draconian ideas of gender, affecting everything from education, health care, employment, and free travel to the right to even exist at all under the law. And right in the crosshairs of this movement are transgender Americans, largely children, but in real time expanding to adults, as well. It’s what makes Drake’s choice of Casa Valentina crackle with the core energy of theater’s ability to digest and discuss the most complicated issues of our time.
Assembled in a roundtable discussion in the lobby of the Provincetown Theater before an evening of rehearsal, Drake and most the cast of Casa Valentina—John Dennis Anderson, William Mullin, Anne Stott, Kenneth Lockwood, Scott Douglas Cunningham, Dustin Ross, and Laura Scribner (with Paul E. Halley and Thom Markee unavailable)—all agree that the experience of telling this story, and telling it now, has been a deep emotional dive for them personally, as issues of gender and identity swirl in the combative zeitgeist.
“Just the other day a transgender legislator in Montana was thrown out and ostracized just for criticizing Republicans,” says actor John Dennis Anderson. “To think that this is happening while we’re working on the play. It’s overwhelming. It’s happening everywhere.”
At almost a decade old, Casa Valentina is ahead of its time for addressing transgender issues, according to Drake. Debuting on Broadway in 2014 and in London’s West End the following year, Casa Valentina is based on the incredible story of Casa Susanna, the real life Catskills home of transgender woman Susanna Valenti and her wife Marie that became a safe haven for cross dressers starting in the mid 1950s. The most amazing aspect of Casa Susanna is not only that it existed and thrived in a conservative time in America, but how the legacy of the safe haven was saved from being lost to history. The owners of Casa Susanna hired frequent guest Andrea Susan as a photographer to document their gatherings. Photography was usually a dangerous prospect, as any outside service used to development the film could hand over the negatives to the police, exposing everyone there to potential ruin and imprisonment. As time passed, however, the film collection vanished for decades, but would reappear at a Manhattan flea market in the mid 2000s. Furniture and antique dealer Robert Swope bought all of them and with his partner Michel Hurst published them as a found photography book in 2005. Soon after the surviving patrons of Casa Susanna stepped forward to finally tell the story of the house in the Catskills, inspiring Fierstein to write Casa Valentina.
In large part Drake chose the play because of the national assault on transgender people and an attempt to return to a strict gender binary with a heavy dose of patriarchy and Christian nationalism. But he also picked Casa Valentina specifically for Provincetown, long a home to many transgender residents and visitors, not to mention Trans Week (formerly Fantasia Fair) as there is a larger intra LGBTQ community discussion about the intersections of gender and sexuality. For all of Provincetown’s open-mindedness and kindness towards the outsider, there is still a persistent question mark over many in town about straight men who cross-dress. It’s not so much a hostility, but a general historical tension between gay and straight men with gender non-conformity in common, which is a consistent thread throughout Casa Valentina.
“There’s plenty of gay men that don’t get it,” says Cunningham of straight cross-dressers. “The times are forcing us to have this conversation.”
What’s more is also an exploration of the Venn diagram of misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia. With a rollback on women’s rights and access to abortion the right wing seeks a path back to a mythical golden era of masculine power over feminine submission. Legislating gender roles from health care to clothing while stoking a strict binary culture.
“Our lives our ordered around this,” says Stott in regard to outward gender expression and expectations. “And breaking this order and men ceding power is a threat. It goes back to this Christian puritanical shit. It’s the Eve-ate-the-apple shit.”
Perhaps above all else Drake hopes Provincetown audiences, and those who come from up Cape to see it, can relate and empathize with the human need to feel safe, supported, and loved while being true to oneself.
“It’s a queer space play,” says Drake. “It’s about a home, about a place, a place where you can be yourself. A place where you can finally breathe.”
The cast of Casa Valentina
(from top left ): John Dennis
Anderson; Anne Stott; Scott
Cunningham; Thom Markee;
Paul E. Halley; Kenneth
Lockwood; Dustin Ross; Laura
Scribner; and William Mullin.
Photos: David Drake
Casa Valentina runs at the Provincetown Theater, 238 Bradford St., Thursday through Saturday at 7 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. through May 28. Tickets ($50) are available at the box office or online at provincetowntheater.org. For more information call 508.487.7487.