Chris died in June. It was morning when I knew. My phone lit up with a faint glow. The branches shook like the horns of a herd of antelopes. I clicked the screen open and I read his obituary. Despite half the country between us and years since the last time I saw him, his obituary told me nothing that I didn’t already know except that he was twenty-eight years old.
I clicked off the screen, prepared to delegate his death to the dossier of tragedies befallen old friends–a collection that expands little by little each year–but I couldn’t. We used to run cross-country together. I tied my shoes and saw him, at the start-line, nervously relacing his. I walked out for coffee. His ghost ran past. It feels like, in this grief, everything but distance is short.
I wrote Chris a letter and tossed it in the bay. It was June, which means Pride, which means things to do, which means marches and music. When my friend Luke told me about Lavender Nights, a new queer cabaret performed at The Center by the InfraSound ensemble, I thought “perfect.” My mood was calling for a celebration of life, of sex. I wanted to see all my friends and collaborators who are still here. There is no cabaret without grief, no celebration without its opposite.
The night of the show, my partner Charlie and I were late. We ran as hard as we could as we passed Charles Street, the Aids Memorial, and St. Vincent’s. We dashed through the doors of The Center, then walked swiftly but politely up the stairs. I marked the geography of loss as we went, and as we sat, my muscles quivered quietly; the InfraSound ensemble warmed up. It occurred to me that my body had not been still for days. It’s always been my habit when feelings can’t find their way into words.
As the ensemble–a queer-led group that grew out of a close group of friends at the Manhattan School of Music’s Contemporary Performance program–warmed up, Stephanie Proulx’s flute shimmered in the light like an oil spill. Cutting through the grim atmosphere at the end of another Supreme Court legislative session in America, Kurt Weill’s “Kanonensong” filled the air with a bouncy and gritty sense of anticipation. It’s a staple of the cabaret genre. “What inspired me was listening to Weill’s Threepenny Opera,” Yoshi Weinberg, the ensemble’s Artistic Director, tells GO. “Cabaret was very much about escapism, as well as sexual deviation and social commentary on the politics of the time.”
Lavender Nights is a time-traveling, genre-bending, exploration of queer music, politics, and profound personal loss. The show begins in the 1920s in Weimer, Germany, an inter-pluvial time. Magnus Hirschfield’s Institut für Sexualwissenschaft (or institute for Sexology) was amassing a great library of queer knowledge, advocating for and employing transsexual people and their rights, and pioneering transgender healthcare. At the beginning of the show, the show’s emcee and countertenor, Luke Paulino, shakes his foot out from behind a stage barrier and steps toward the stage.
“Wilkommen! Bienvenue! Welcome!” he sings. “Leave your troubles outside. So, life is disappointing, forget it! In here, life is beautiful. The girls are beautiful, even the orchestra is beautiful!” Paulino has a crass joke for each instrument and a sexy insinuation for each of the show’s ten performers. Someone’s favorite instrument is the skin flute. The conductor sits on a stool for once. And if we think the trumpet player’s tone is good, we should see what she can do to a watermelon. Or something like that. It’s delightful. It goes by so fast. And I am entirely aswoon, drawn into the narrative, captivated by the music and the outfits.
When Sophie Delphis and Brian Mummert take to the little stage, there is a slight tension between them. Delphis stands tall in an all-white suit, with shoulders so square they could carry four of me. Mummert carries himself with an aura of the all-American athlete. His tall socks seem intent to draw your eyes up to short well-tailored shorts and a suit jacket up top. They both play gender roles, with a queered but classic formality.
“There was a time,” he sings, “and now it’s all gone by / when we two lived together, she and I.” Delphis rolled her eyes and looked at the audience as if to say, “Okay, yes but it made sense at the time.”
“The way we were was just the way to be / I cared for her, and she took care of me,” he continues. “The milkman rang the bell, I got out of bed / I opened up her purse, paid him what he said. / I’d have a glass of milk / Back in bed I’d climb / You understand, she was out working all this time.”
Even amidst the nostalgia of the scene, trauma lingers. Bitterness and bad feelings pierce the pretty veils. “We locked the door” they sing together, “and each commenced to roam. Goodbye sweet two-by-four that we called home.”
After that, we don’t see the two together again until the very end. The rest of act one has songs of gender-bending like Micha Spoliansky’s “Maskulinum-Femininum,” Tom Lehrer’s hilarious anti-love song the “Masochism Tango” and ends with another piece by Spoliansky: “The Lavender Song.” It’s Paulino’s time on stage again and he sings so joyously, “We’re not afraid to be queer and different. / If that means hell, well hell we’ll take the chance. / They’re all so straight, uptight, upright, and rigid. They march in lockstep; we prefer to dance. / We see a world of romance and pleasure. All they can see is sheer banality. Lavender night, our greatest treasure, where we can be just who we want to be.”
But even in this song, violence and consequence are inherent. “Round us all up, send us away. That’s what you’d really like to do,” Paulino sings. Every enthusiastic rhyme, insouciant tune, and trill of a flute has its counter in the baritone and deep trembling trumpets. The floor falls out of every fantasy, as it did when the Nazis burned every book in Hirschfield’s Institut. Even in that auditorium, it was hard not to turn to the events of the day–Chris’s death, the Supreme Court, all the grim things that awaited these characters as the 1940s approached–and whatever horrors will come tomorrow. But we keep celebrating when we can’t sleep.
“The joy, fun, and sexual freedom felt in the first act soon becomes a longing desire for something lost [in the second act],” Yoshi tells me. They achieve this feeling by combining contemporary compositions like Yann Tiersen’s soundtrack to Amélie with iconic mid-century tunes like “Padam Padam” by Edith Piaf, “On n’oublie rien” by Jacques Brel, and “La diva de l’empire.” They are songs for the long moments between the golden age and paradise found.
In “Je Te Vuex,” Sophie sings, “I understood your distress, dear lover / and I yield to your desires: / make me your mistress. / Far from us is wisdom / no more sadness. / I aspire to the previous moment when we’ll be happy. I want you.” A few minutes later, another Brel song plays, and the singers say, “We don’t forget anything / We don’t forget anything at all. / We don’t forget anything / We get used to it that’s all.
Throughout all these songs, there’s a strong note of the political. War drives people, their music, and their styles, across Europe. Every moment of hope, whether in America, France, or anywhere, is simultaneously haunted by memories of ease, loss, and liberation. The ensemble performs Charles Ives’ “Memories (A, Very Pleasant; and B, Rather Sad).”
Across the decades and nations of these memories, new songs are written, and new celebrations occur, but a better era is always under construction and never quite permanent.
In the final and most anachronistic moment of the show, Paulino takes the stage again for MIKA’s “Over My Shoulder.” It’s a somber song from an otherwise colorful candy-coated album, 2007’s Life in Cartoon Motion. But in this context, it fits. It’s like those photos of historic figures who somehow look like celebrities or time-travelers. It works because “time” is the issue, is the problem, our inability to always be in the now even though now is always always.
“Over my shoulder / Running away.” Paulino sings, “Feels like I’m falling. / Losing my day…. / Fog out my daylight / Torture my night / Feels like I’m falling / Far out of sight.”
It’s July now. Pride month is over. Somebody told me that this time of year is like the moment you begin to clean up after a party. All the guests have left. It’s just you and I in our homes, picking up, planning for next year. And it strikes me that although June felt heavy this year–it didn’t even offer us the illusions of massive reform or repair that the last few summers have–we’ve been here before. We sang through it. I’m thinking about Chris, who is still here and not. Except now, he’s not running, he won’t, he can’t. There’s no going back to that time. There are still photos. In almost every one we are side-by-side. For days I avoided looking at them. But cabaret or no cabaret, no escapism or avoidance keeps these feelings entirely away.