By: Rob Watson
The mix of cultural experiences, generational viewpoints, and age perspectives within a family can be fascinating, intriguing, and sometimes, yes, a little disconcerting. A friend of mine told me that she was a little concerned when her young daughter bounced around the house lip-syncing to Madonna’s “Like a Virgin.” “She is a virgin!” my friend cried.
I felt a similar wave of disturbance in the parental force when my post-toddler sons did their version of Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It),” complete with dance routine. These are moments when the people, artistic material, and sensibilities seem to be delightfully disconnected.
We had a potential situation like that last week when I took my two rough-and-tumble, jockish ten-year old sons, and my two Fox-news-loving, Republican, eighty-something parents to see my partner Jim act, sing, and dance in a local production of La Cage aux Folles.
The show is described as follows: “Jerry Herman and Harvey Fierstein’s musical comedy is the story of a flamboyant gay couple—Georges, the manager of a Saint-Tropez nightclub featuring drag entertainment, and Albin, his romantic partner and star attraction—and the farcical adventures that ensue when Georges’ son brings home his fiancée’s ultra-conservative parents to meet them. Winner of countless Tony Awards including Best Musical and Best Musical Revival. Adult themes.”
“Adult themes” is code for gender and sexual orientation equality.
I did not have a single qualm about taking my family to see the show, although, on the way there, the thought occurred to me that some discussion of the show’s themes might be in order. My parents were well familiar with the movie The Birdcage, and certainly we had gone through thirty years of LGBT personal awareness and evolution since my coming out to them. I figured that for my sons, the tale of an LGBT family would be somewhat familiar, even though our family is dressed in much less glitter and glamour. So, we had no discussions before the show.
The cast was excellent. My family soaked it in, particularly my son Jesse. When one of the Cagelles, played by talented dancer Danny Dwaine Wells II, was performing, Jesse gasped and said aloud in the middle of the song for all to hear, “He is really good! He looks like a she but it’s a he, and he is really good! And he is doing it all in heels!”
For me, the most moving part of the play was near the end when the straight son of the gay couple, Jean-Michel (played by a very talented young actor, Curtis Reynolds), acknowledges his gay parents, and in particular, his nonbiological mother (who is not biologically a woman). Jean-Michel sings the song Look Over There,
How often is someone concerned with the tiniest thread of your life? Concerned with whatever you feel and whatever you touch? Look over there. Look over there. Somebody cares that much. How often does somebody sense that you need them without being told? When you have a hurt in your heart you’re too proud to disclose? Look over there. Look over there. Somebody always knows. When your world spins too fast, and your bubble has burst, someone puts himself last, so that you can come first. So count all the loves who will love you from now ’til the end of your life, and when you have added the loves who have loved you before, look over there. Look over there. Somebody loves you more…
I was completely filled with emotion; every single word rang true for me, and these lyrics were the perfect description of how much I love my sons. I turned to look at them, both enraptured by the spectacle in front of them. Jesse caught me looking at them, and leaned over.
“Dad . . . I have to go to the bathroom.” Okay. Back down to Parent Planet Earth.
After the show, I had a rousing conversation with my family. My parents loved it and found themselves much more familiar with it than they had expected to be. The boys loved it, too, and took the family dynamics in stride, as I thought they would. “But why did they cast men to play women?” Jesse wanted to know. “Why didn’t they just find women to play those parts?”
“That was part of the show,” I explained. “The characters are actually men who find fulfillment by dressing up as women.”
“They do?” both my boys shouted out in shock. I realized then that we had hit our “teachable moment” of the experience. I also became aware that the preteen gender-role programming of our society had, unbeknownst to me, been affecting my sons. I was not shocked; I had been hearing “anti-girl” rhetoric from some of their friends for a while, and had been working to dismantle it.
“Yes, of course.” I explained. “Just as you guys feel cool and happy when you dress up as super heroes and robots, other men like the glamour of posing as women.” They both nodded their understanding. “Besides, Jess, when you were three, remember asking for a set of Princess Slippers for Christmas? I made sure you got them!”
Jesse laughed remembering the prized footwear. “Yeah. But they hurt!”
One of the perks of being the spouse of a cast member is that you get to meet the others in the cast. It was a pleasure for me to be introduced to Curtis, the young actor who had moved me to tears. As I shook his hand, I said, “I have to tell you, as a gay dad of these two, I found your delivery of that song to be incredible. You sang to the hearts of so many gay parents who are ignored, maligned, and not valued. Your song and the emotion you gave it told the world what we are really about. You aced it. You are very good at what you do.”
The comment seemed to mean something to him, and as I moved away, Jesse reached up and put his arms around me, having overheard what I said. “I love you, Daddy. Thank you for bringing us.” He planted a big kiss on my cheek, before scrambling away and chasing his brother down the sidewalk.