New York Diary: Plato - the transsexual musical

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The Independent Culture
"DO YOU know who I am?" shouted the muscular, cowboy-hatted African- American drag performer, on stage at the Bowery Ballroom. The crowd at the Manhattan night-club - three floors of suspiciously straight-looking white people - screamed out wrong guesses at her name.

But this horde was well acquainted with another drag queen, A fictional one named Hedwig. They were at the ballroom to celebrate the year-old musical Hedwig the Angry Inch and its spanking new cast album.

In the play, Hedwig recounts the story of her life: an East German "slip of a girlie-boy" undergoes a botched Iron Curtain sex change (thus the "angry inch" of the title) and becomes an American trailer-park divorcee working "the jobs we call blow". Decked out in a Farrah Fawcett wig and a stonewashed denim frock with a fringe, she recalls her romance with an adolescent rock-god-to-be, and finally becomes herself, a demi-gendered singer.

While Hedwig the dingy chanteuse is a bit of loser, Hedwig the play is anything but. The New York theatre critics' pet will soon be a movie. And you may be seeing Hedwig at a London theatre near you.

The play has deserved accolades for its music, which ranges from Iggy Pop to Indie-pop, and also for its unsentimental picture of a drag diva - more Courtney Love than Judy Garland. Hedwig is given to clever, angry patter. When asked what creature had to die, for her to have her ratty fur coat, Hedwig quips: "My Aunt Trudy". But does the much-beloved Hedwig indicate a new affection for New York's transgendered people?

"Films such as Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and To Wong Foo have made drag non-threatening and have created expectations and audiences for something even `edgier', like Hedwig," says Eric Clarke, a Rockefeller Fellow at the Lesbian and Gay Studies Center at the City University of New York.

"Of course, people generally just want to see drag and transsexuality as entertainment, not on the street or in the supermarket," he adds.

Unlike Patrick Swayze in a dress, Hedwig isn't just a mound of sparkle. She conveys suffering and world-weariness, mourning her never-was career and her lost loves. Her songs are sophisticated: Hedwig's best number is dedicated to Plato's androgyne. One theatre critic (a fan) compared it with Rocky Horror, but the show in fact aspires to be a trash-rock version of Plato's Symposium.

At the Bowery Ballroom, Cheater (also the play's on-stage band, The Angry Inch) played to a drag-loving het crowd, among which straight men built like spark plugs wondered out loud when the evening's Hedwig lookalike competition would get under way. With the bewigged drag queens in such short supply, one man started fetishising a "real" woman bartender with Hedwig-themed hair - two gargantuan pony tails complemented by a dog-collar and a schoolgirl pout.

"Her hair is fabulous!" one man cried. "She's fierce," said another. "No, she's fabulous," chimed a third.

Clarke compares Hedwig to another diversion in what he calls an "East Village touristic" vein - the weekly "Foxy Night" at a Manhattan bar named Cock.

"All of a sudden, straight people and conventional gay men are lining up, paying $5 and watching members of the audience do the most disgusting, unrepeatable things with their bodies for a $100 prize," says Clarke. One of those "unrepeatable" acts was akin to what the Eighties performance artist Karen Finley did with yams.

Hedwig is also something of a work of West Village tourism. After Hedwig the play, theatre-goers pour out on to the West Side Highway and walk towards the subway. And as they do, they ignore the Meat Packing district's many real transsexuals.