Review: THE BOOK OF MARY inspires the 'Diva Within' at DIRT DOGS THEATRE

now playing at the MATCH complex through April 9th

VIDEO: Get A First Look at RENT at Theatre Under The Stars, Directed by Ty Defoe
VIDEO: Get A First Look at RENT at Theatre Under The Stars, Directed by Ty Defoe

Mary Hooper is a Houston Theatre icon, and undoubtedly the all-time "Queen of Montrose" who reigned from the late 70s through the 90s, and beyond. Now I know some drag queens and flamboyant gentlemen will question my giving her (a cis woman) that title, but Mary was always front and center in the "gayborhood" for everything. Raids on the bars in the 70s? Mary was there. Protesting Anita Bryant's visit to Houston in 1977? Mary was there. Houston's first Gay Pride Parade complete with a KKK protest of it? Mary was there. The opulent Diana Awards in the 80s? Mary was always there front and center glittering. The founding of Stages Houston in 1978? Mary was there alongside Ted Swindley.

Let's make no mistake about her iconic status. One time Joe Watts (Houston's grandfather of gay theatre) was casting THE MOST FABULOUS STORY EVER TOLD, and he needed a "voice of God/stage manager" character. I asked him who he could possibly cast? He looked me in the eye and said, "There is only one... her name is Mary Hooper." I once started a rumor that the gay bar Mary's Naturally was named after her, and more recently I have floated that Hamburger Mary's in Houston is also similarly a tribute to Mary Hooper. None of the naming rumors are true, but honestly they could be. There is a short, tight list of Houston actors who could do a show about their life and have it mean anything more than a vanity project, but she is at the top of that register. There is something about Mary Hooper that Houston loves, and if you are lucky enough to catch this one woman show called THE BOOK OF MARY you will learn why.

When the lights came up on the actress alone onstage during act one, I realized she had a book in front of her. I was anxious. I thought, "Oh no! She's gonna read us her COVID passion project." But ten minutes in, I was enraptured, and the first half glided past and left the audience wanting more. Like any great actress, Mary is a storyteller. Like any legend, her life has a lot of incredible stories. Marry those two things and you materialize magic. I could listen to this woman talk about her life for weeks at a time. THE BOOK OF MARY at two hours is definitely not long enough, and we need a sequel. It would be ironic if the one role Mary Hooper couldn't play was herself, but she is assured and the performance is honest and fully realized. Her stories are incredibly poignant, and should resonate with anyone who ever felt a little twinge of the outsider life. Even where a glitch would happen, a line would get flubbed, a prop would malfunction, her composure and grace keep shining. In fact, like most live theatre it is infinitely more interesting when things get unpredictable. I think Mary would agree, since she thrives on chaos and beauty under pressure.

Originally last year this was simply a one night only staged reading, but over the past twelve months theatre legend Ted Swindley and Mary created this fully realized stage show complete with a set and video and photo footage to flesh out her accounts of history. The Dirt Dogs production company has backed it, and I am glad to see it alive and up and running. Ted has turned a couple of essays into a narrative show that has a wonderful arc, and made it all work theatrically. Tim Thomson created the sound and video presentations, and his work in no small part elevates everything to that level with far more ease. THE BOOK OF MARY is in assured hands from a directorial and technical standpoint. The staging is simple, and it fulfills everything it needs to be.

This should be a mandatory event if you are a part of the LGBTQI2SA+ community or remember the glory days of Montrose before it became a gentrified upper middle class enclave of straight couples looking to be hip by association of a location. In this show we hear about the earliest days of the fight for gay rights in Houston, and the days when drag was illegal are discussed. All of this couldn't come at a more opportune time. Mary and her friends fought to get us past all of this, and yet here we are about to enter the same era that created the community. She is the flame to remind us how to wage this war, and how to love those around you that are hurting from the storms. It's the perfect time for this voice to remind us that we are enough, and we can be stronger than we ever thought.

If I sound like a "fangirl", it's because I am. I couldn't believe more in THE BOOK OF MARY. The first weekend has already sold out its opening night, and I truly hope audiences flock throughout the run. It's one of the most enlightening and wonderful theatrical experiences about Houston's recent history you are going to find. It reminded me why I came to this city, and why I stay. And it reminded me how badass Mary Hooper is onstage, and that it costs a lot to be who you are and who you want to be. If you need diva lessons, here they are.

THE BOOK OF MARY runs through April 9th in the MATCH complex. Tickets are available through their site. Photo is courtesy of Gary Griffin.


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From This Author - Brett Cullum

Brett Cullum has been part of the Houston and Memphis Theatre scenes for several decades now. He's been seen on community theatre and professional stages in several cities including Playhouse 1960... (read more about this author)


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