Theater archives

Oral Traditions


Copious blowjobs aside, the original Debbie Does Dallas tells a typically American story. Debbie, a teen with gobs of ambition and a great rack, gets offered a spot as a Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader. But her parents don’t approve, so she has to raise the money to get to the Lone Star State by herself. Her hometown cheerleading squad decides to help her gather funds for the whole team to go with her, so they all get jobs working for extraordinarily horny shopkeepers. Then Debbie’s boss inspires her to sell sexual favors in order to make extra dough. She convinces all the girls to start turning tricks. The team rakes it in, while supposedly maintaining their maidenheads.

It is awfully plotty for a blue film. But a porno often needs a solid narrative to make it big, and Debbie was huge. Of course, you have to take the tale with a grain of salt—make that a pillar of salt—because this blockbuster really put the oral back in amorality. Prostitution, fine, but the film slyly glorifies statutory rape. Post-feminists might initially warm to the theme of women who bond by forming a collective focused on economic independence, but it comes at a high price, so to speak. While it appears that the squad loves screwing a rogue’s gallery of repulsive retailers, it’s a ludicrous notion unless these virgins get hotter for capital than sex. If Debbie had to kill in order to get the cash, she’d be Macbeth—make that Titus Andronicus.

It’s easy to see why a postmodernist like Susan L. Schwartz, the show’s “conceiver,” whose background includes Princeton and Cambridge, might get excited to find such classical themes in an erotic flick. Bringing it to the stage is a commentary on commentary, a parody of the perils of recontextualization, as much an argument against mixing high art and low as in favor of it. It’s entertaining as hell, though. Almost mindlessly so, except that Erica Schmidt has very cleverly adapted it into softcore by, among other things, raising the girls’ ages to 18. Have they all been left back? Dance numbers and cheerleading routines take the place of the film’s sex acts, and Schmidt transforms the text’s sleaze into candy-coated MTV naughtiness. To complete its transformation into a cartoon, they’ve hired actresses who can affect squeakier voices than the Powerpuff Girls. At this point in the run, the cast has started cutting up and breaking each other’s concentration, but these Harvey Korman moments actually strengthen the show’s faux ending, in which Debbie cops to her loss of dignity. But by this climax, thankfully, no one has lost any spunk.

Equally enthusiastic, more morally consistent, and just as sex-positive as Debbie, the bards of Russell Simmons’s Def Poetry Jam try to help the rap impresario do for spoken-word poetry on stage what he’s already done for comedy on TV—debase it for dollars. Streamlined of spontaneity and robbed of slam spirit, DPJ’s multicultural cast spits a living encyclopedia of identity politics tropes, some more successful than others. They’re all amazing performers who sell mad attitude, and most of their writing would make great song lyrics. But it’s still pretentious to call even the most moving song lyrics poetry. That stance also robs us, temporarily, of the fierce hip-hop album that Black Ice, whose lyrics combine Chuck D.’s righteousness and Ice-T’s tough love, would make for Def Jam (to which he’s been signed as a spoken-word artist) if Timbaland supplied it with some beats. Philosophically, DPJ is the mirror image of DDD. It demands serious analysis but can’t measure up, yet you’d rather dance to it anyway.