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At the age when most American kids are getting their driver’s licenses and prepping for the prom, playwright Susana Cook had an abrupt baptism into the world of political consciousness, an experience that shaped her contribution to this year’s 14th annual Hot Festival of queer performance art and theater.
In 1976, the 16-year-old Buenos Aires schoolgirl awoke one day to hear the radio playing military marches in place of the morning news. Overnight, right-wing generals had seized political power and would soon launch the infamous “dirty war,” which led to the disappearance of nearly 11,000 intellectuals, leftists, and so-called “terrorists.”
“When you go through something like a dictatorship, like I did, you can’t help but be political,” says Cook, who left her homeland in the ’80s. Now she’s worried: She sees echoes of Argentina in America, the seeds of fascism being sown in the guise of the “war on terror” and “family values.”
This malaise led her to write, direct, and star in The Values Horror Show. The satire is a story of how political leaders “made this country fall in love with war and homophobia.” Cook pokes fun at the Iraq war, state-sponsored paranoia, and the right wing’s manipulation of gay marriage into a wedge issue. At the same time, she imbues her work with the sage perspective of someone who has known totalitarianism.
Gather 100 artists and you’ll get at least that many political perspectives. With so many participants this year over its eight-week run, the Hot Festival’s politics will range from international to interpersonal—and even to barnyard. Obie winner Holly Hughes’s performance art piece (July 13 and 27) centers on oddly intimate relationships between humans and their four-legged friends (shh! don’t tell Senator Santorum). The politics of partying define the fest’s closer, Brandon Olson and Rami Ramirez’s Party and Prey (August 18 through 27), a theatrical examination of New York nightlife, alienation, and the unquenchable thirst for “fun.”
Even in these touch-and-go times, with the Supreme Court in limbo and a hard-line Christian bloc trying to call the shots, this LGBT-themed amalgam of talent has managed to recruit more new faces than ever and increase its diversity, according to Dixon Place director and festival founder Ellie Covan.
The festival she started in her sweltering (hence the name “Hot”) living room nearly a decade and a half ago has expanded from just four weeks last year, partly because of this year’s absence of the Queer@HERE fest, but also, she says, because of a growing hunger for LGBT-oriented programming.
The variety and size of this summer’s Fresh Fruit Festival, Hot’s upstart cousin, would seem to corroborate an increasing appetite for this type of work. Not surprisingly, the right wing has landed a juicy part in the lineup: In Barbara Kahn’s Pen Pals, a radical lesbian and female Christian fundamentalist become buddies in a civil-liberty-deprived America of the future (July 21 through 24). In Waafrika (July 21 through 24), playwright Nanna Mwaluko sets an interracial lesbian affair amid the virulent homophobia of Kenya, where being gay can mean death. And homo skinhead-punk Pedro Angel Serrano recounts his subcultural sojourning as a gay man in a hardcore world in his one-man show Low Brow (July 28 and 31).
If queer theater sometimes gets accused of solipsism, the increasingly global scope of these festivals signals a welcome shift toward a new focus. But while the view is more expansive, homophobia remains an essential common theme—and problem.
For Covan, queer festivals are the antidote to this homophobia, speaking to a far-flung community: “You are reaching people who want to be reached; they want to be moved. If they don’t know it’s queer, they might not know to come.”