No one arrived at La MaMa clad only in her underwear, but otherwise the 20th Anniversary Celebration of the WOW Café Theater, held December 23, stirred up the naughty, tarty, anything-can-happen energy of the costume-themed benefits that helped get the women’s space off the ground two decades ago. After hosting two annual international women’s performance festivals in 1980 and ’81, Peggy Shaw, Lois Weaver, and comrades put on such extravaganzas as the Freudian Slip party and the Debutante Ball (a coming-out party if ever there was one) to raise the first several months’ rent for a narrow vestibule on East 11th Street, where they could keep the creativity going year-round. There, on a stage no bigger than a queen-sized mattress, Split Britches, Holly Hughes, Reno, Carmelita Tropicana, the Five Lesbian Brothers, and other now well-known artists honed their craft, giving birth to a celebratory feminist-and-tinsel-tinged queer aesthetic.
By the mid ’80s, when the first swath of gentrification had carved the Loisaida into the East Village, the rent quadrupled, and WOW moved to a city-owned building on East 4th Street, where it has flourished ever since, presenting hundreds—if not thousands—of plays, solo shows, concerts, dance pieces, cabarets, and sundry performances that defy classification. “We have hundreds and hundreds of people who want to perform tonight,” said benefit cohost Weaver, dressed in the blond pile-up wig of a 20-year-old stage persona called Tammy Whynot. “And some of them are going to get to.”
About 50 of them did: A thoroughly diverse display of women, ranging in age from their twenties to their seventies, in assorted levels of butch, femme, or full-male drag (or various stages of undress) presented songs, playlets, lip-synchs, dances, poems, paeans, and rants. Terry Dame, Mary Feaster, and Lisa Frisari plunked out a transporting opus on their junkyard gamelan of kitchen pots, household hangers, and rubber bands. Ira Jeffries waxed eloquently on the history of bull-daggers in Harlem. Drag King Dred transformed from fur-coated, crotch-bulging, Superfly studhood into high-booted, white-jumpsuited, Grace Jones slinkiness. (The gold tooth, conked hair, and shiny white shoes came off as the makeover transpired; the crotch stuffing and goatee did not.) Karen Campbell offered an enlightening lecture-dem on the latent lesbianism embedded in Italian cuisine. “Women spoke in the only way available to them,” she explained. “Making food.” Stuffed shells, gnocchi, cavatelli—they really do resemble female genitalia. Building on the food theme, Felice Shays spat out a punky rebuke to an ex-lover and fist-fucked a watermelon.
Mixed among these samplings of the contemporary canon were some legendary performances. Spiderwoman kicked off the show with a wonderfully silly song. Claire Olivia Moed re-created her spontaneous semiotic readings of audience members’ clothing. (“When you make a lesbian family,” she advised, as she approvingly interpreted the black-and-gold motif of the outfits worn by Susan Young and her toddler, “please coordinate.”) The a cappella gospel group Pillars of Salt crooned a couple of old favorites, and Sharon Jane Smith sang her suave folk tunes and was raucously called back for an encore. Lisa Kron revived her side-splitting dramatic reading of a grammar school booklet on menstruation. Weaver and co-MC Carmelita Tropicana kept the four-hour program hopping along with their clever quips, meanwhile offering a moving object lesson in the easy give-and-take that can develop between two performers who have shared a stage for years.
Ditto for a comic break-up scene from Weaver and Peggy Shaw—”our Lunt and Fontaine,” as Lesbian Herstory Archivist Joan Nestle remarked during the first intermission. Of course Lunt and Fontaine, it turns out, were also “ours,” but Nestle’s point is well-taken. Weaver and Shaw, and the explosion they helped to spark in the days before lesbian was briefly chic or begging to go mainstream, put out a powerful, playful public dykehood that opened aesthetic, political, and personal possibilities for legions. It’s no accident that WOW inspired much of the feminist theater theory that burst forth in the ’80s by such critics as Kate Davy and Elin Diamond—who not only attended the bash, but were saluted from the stage.
Indeed, many of the young women who make work at WOW these days sought the place out after reading about it in their courses in fancy colleges; at the same time the space still draws local working-class women, too. And just like two decades ago, they all come looking for creative opportunity, community, or maybe just girls.
It’s their desire—and the labor that backs it up—that has kept the place going all these years, even as the thriving East Village performance scene of the ’80s has long evaporated. WOW owes its longevity in large measure to its anarcho-collective organizing. To this day, the place is run by a self-appointed committee made up of anyone who turns up for the open, weekly meetings (Tuesdays at 6:30). There are no auditions, no grant applications, no funders to impress, no government hacks to threaten censorship, and seldom any reviews. While much of the ’80s scene was washed away in the Reaganite tide of a self-promoting, money-chasing, career-building ethic, WOW still runs itself in a way that, as current WOWite Jen Abrams puts it, “gives each producer complete artistic control while the women really come through for each other.”
The other factor, of course, has been WOW’s affordable monthly nut. With an annual budget of some $25,000—all collected in box office and soda sales—the roughly $450 rent bill has been manageable enough. But if there was a bittersweet note to the celebration on Saturday, it was the looming fear that the space could be lost. The city has decided to let go of many of the buildings it holds on the block—including those housing not only WOW but also La MaMa and the New York Theatre Workshop—and it’s not yet clear whether the groups will be offered rational purchase prices, or whether, true to form, Giuliani will try to auction them off to developers. For now, WOW folks, working in coalition with their neighbors, say they’re sanguine about their chances of negotiating a reasonable solution. “Desire isn’t enough by itself,” says Shaw, recalling why WOW sought out a permanent location in the first place. “You have to have space where desire can be formed.”