"We want you to join us for a gay Seder," says Dito, indicating himself and John. "A Gayder!" comes the immediate response from a perhaps-already-boozy audience member to my left.
At the refreshments counter, generous allotments of free punch and wine had been served for the 20 minutes preceding curtain, catering to the probably hundred-plus audience bunched knee-to-knee into the atrium of the Wilma Theater. It's opening night for My Dinner with Dito: How to Be a Gay Cabaret, featuring Dito van Reigersberg, aka drag superstar Martha Graham Cracker and one of the founders of Pig Iron Theatre Company, Philly's pre-eminent avant-garde theater group. He's performing opposite John Jarboe, artistic director of the Bearded Ladies, and the audience is clearly enthused about this pairing of two of their favorite drag queens.
Dito turns to John. "They've stolen our joke," he says, his performer's facade cracking, and they both giggle. "That's not a great way to start."
But audiences love little hitches like this, remember them long after they forget the show. There were some opening night jitters at My Dinner with Dito, perhaps because there was no preview night, but more likely because of the unusually intimate nature of this show.
Both Dito and John, as vital organs within their respective companies, are well versed in creating thoughtful theater. As Philly drag stars, they're also accomplished crowd pleasers. But this show, written and performed by the two men, draws from personal experiences of adolescent glory and shame.
The format for My Dinner with Dito is that of My Dinner with Andre: Jarboe and Dito appear to play themselves, telling difficult stories from their own past while eating, singing, dancing and eventually dragging their way through a seven-course meal. This meal, which the audience shares in seven single-bite servings handed out pre-show in bento boxes, becomes a nostalgic love/hate song to the experience of growing up gay in America. An experience, they worry, which may be changing irreversibly.
Perhaps, they hope/rue, the gay subculture is finally becoming an accepted part of the culture. In this world, gay bars, once central to gay culture, close down because the majority of straight venues are now gay-friendly. Drag shows are formulated to be family-friendly, so that kids can go and see them. Middle-class boys are practically encouraged to experiment with mommy's makeup.
This is, of course, all good, right? But Dito and John recognize with self-deprecatory smiles that with the good comes bad. The skills, tactics and canniness they developed in a distinctly anti-gay (even gay-ignorant) era—the ability to lie low, communicate with potential love interests in code, the secret shared icons of worship (Judy, Liza, Madonna) and above all the thick skin—are perhaps becoming outdated, like rationing and paint-on stockings. And no one likes to see his or her scars forgotten or undervalued.
As a tribute to those scars, Dito and John tell their stories: first loves, shameful acts, strategies of survival.
Of course the idea that transvestites are now universally respected members of society, and that cross-dressing is celebrated by mothers everywhere, is a bit of an exaggeration. After all, while some gay bars close down because of widespread tolerance, others are being shut down for the opposite reason. And recently, Dito himself was invited to read Dr. Seuss books to a group of schoolchildren as Martha Graham Cracker—an invitation that was subsequently revoked once officials caught wind of it.
And My Dinner with Dito is not suggesting that the picture is black and white. What it does assert—in a blithe, cannily-choreographed festival, with gorgeous renditions of Bowie, Stephen Sondheim, Judy Garland, Queen and others—is that gay culture is definitely changing, slowly and steadily, and perhaps with it the nature of being gay in America will change too.