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Was '70s disco star Sylvester the Martin Luther King Jr. of the LGBT movement?

In his time, he may have been considered little more than a gender-bending novelty act, but a new production suggests '70s disco star Sylvester was a pioneering hero of the LGBT community

The trio bringing "Mighty Real" to Old City's Painted Bride Art Center this Friday (from left): co-producers Kendrel Bowman, Sheryl Lee Ralph (actress on 'Ray Donovan') and Anthony Wayne, co-creator and star of the play based on the life of disco star Sylvester.
The trio bringing "Mighty Real" to Old City's Painted Bride Art Center this Friday (from left): co-producers Kendrel Bowman, Sheryl Lee Ralph (actress on 'Ray Donovan') and Anthony Wayne, co-creator and star of the play based on the life of disco star Sylvester.Read more

The moral of "Mighty Real: A Fabulous Sylvester Musical" appears to be: One generation's freak show is another generation's cultural icon/civil-rights crusader.

A freak show is how Sylvester - the gender-bending, mono-monikered "Queen of Disco" - was pretty much considered by mainstream America (if it considered him at all) during his late-1970s heyday.

The singer, born Sylvester James Jr., wore his sexual orientation as proudly and comfortably as he wore his flamboyant stage threads - which hardly made him an American darling in those still mostly closeted days. As a result, he seemed to be an individual without any consequence outside the nation's discos, where his hits "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)" and "Dance (Disco Heat)" helped provide the soundtrack to those spandex-and-Quaalude-drenched times.

But from a distance of almost 40 years, Sylvester's life and career are anything but inconsequential, or so argues actress Sheryl Lee Ralph, who is a co-producer of "Mighty Real," which opens a weekend run Friday at Old City's Painted Bride Art Center.

"He was definitely a fighter," insisted Ralph. "If you are going to say Martin Luther King fought for the rights of black folks to vote in the '60s, I dare say Sylvester fought for the rights of folks in the [LGBT] community to be themselves and accepted for who they are.

"He was [a visionary], just as Martin Luther King Jr. was. How dare Martin Luther King Jr. fight for the right for black folks to vote in America. You can get killed for stuff like that. How dare an artist like Sylvester sing his songs, use that voice and accept a Grammy in full drag - lest we forget that's what he did."

The concept of a theatrical tribute to Sylvester began with Anthony Wayne, co-creator, co-director and star of "Mighty Real." A Broadway "gypsy" whose resume includes stints in such shows as "Anything Goes" and "Priscilla Queen of the Desert," Wayne said he is too young to remember Sylvester, who died of AIDS at age 41, in 1988. He admitted that he had never even heard of Sylvester until one day in 2010, when he watched a TV One documentary about the late entertainer.

"I was inspired by Sylvester's drive to be regarded as who he wanted to be, regardless of any situation, and his fervor to really just go out there and be himself, with no holds barred," Wayne recalled.

"I already sing high in that range, and as I watched his story, I started listening to his music and thought, 'He kind of sounds like me' - or I kind of sound like him, should I say."

That inspired Wayne to begin thinking about doing something to "celebrate his life." In 2011, Wayne and his partner, Kendrell Bowman (the show's co-producer/co-director), seriously began to consider the project. They created a Kickstarter campaign, but also reached out to numerous celebrities, "cold-calling" them via Twitter. The only one who responded positively was Ralph, who was prodded by her son, Etienne, a film-and-video major at Drexel University, to further explore the project, despite some initial reluctance on her part.

"The two of them got on the bus and came to Philadelphia. We sat there . . . on a cold winter morning, and I said: 'I see a spring for this project. I see a hot summer for this project,' " said Ralph, a multifaceted performer who created the role on Broadway of Deena Jones in "Dream Girls," and is the wife of state Sen. Vincent Hughes (D-Phila.).

"When we were done, my son said, 'I told you.' He was absolutely right. The project is absolutely wonderful."

Ralph acknowledged that she was sold, in part, by the script's inclusion of Sylvester's battle with AIDS. "When Kendrell and Anthony addressed [AIDS] in their piece, I was like, yeah, that's even more reason for the . . . DIVA Foundation to be a part of this," she said, referring to the charity she founded that is dedicated to AIDS education, support and research.

Although Wayne agrees with Ralph in her assessment of Sylvester as an important civil-rights figure, he sees his show as rendering the singer in far more personal terms.

"I think during that time period he wanted the freedom to just be happy, and at the end of the day, that's what we all want," he reasoned.

"So, whether it meant doing things that would make him happy, like putting on a wig or putting on jewelry or what have you, it was something that was different. He wasn't about being a trailblazer. He was just thinking about just being Sylvester."