Review: DOPE QUEENS Asks What it Takes to Make a Chosen Family Home Where None Can Possibly Exist
It's very rare for a play to leave me in tears, the first to stand to applaud a cast during their curtain call. But this was the case when I attended the World Premiere of DOPE QUEENS, brilliantly written and directed by Grafton Doyle at the Hudson Mainstage Theatre, which takes us to real places inhabited by real characters inspired by real people, grappling with hardcore real-life problems tempered by the only practical survival strategies available to them on the gritty streets of the infamous Tenderloin District in San Francisco.
While listed on the National Registry of Historic Places with a long history as a center of alternative sexualities predating even the Castro District, as well as the being the site of the Compton Cafeteria riot which predates the seminal Stonewall Riots in New York City by two years, the TL still remains a notorious haven for prostitutes, drug dealers and transients with nothing else to lose while hoping to launch new lives for themselves.
Taking place in 2012 in a seedy, dirty one-room apartment in the TL, DOPE QUEENS centers on three friends: Goldie, Blake, and Angel, all of whom move to San Francisco after meeting in protective custody at Elmwood Men's State Prison in San Jose where they were serving time together in protective custody. Goldie and Angel are transgender women, outcasts from their families and the society in which they live, while Blake is a self-absorbed drug addict whose family begs him to go back to rehab but continues to relapse despite sincere attempts at sobriety. The three unite in the only place they believe their survival is possible while working the streets for money to support themselves and their addictions while keeping a roof over their heads.
In a world slowly gentrifying where their reputation on the streets is everything, we are taken inside their struggles to secure a position of respect and dignity after settling into an SRO Hotel where they agree to support each other as their "chosen family." But of course, despite what appears to be true love and friendship between them (in various combinations), desperate times lead to desperate measures, brought into focus during one of the most dramatic and true-to-life confrontational scenes I have ever witnessed onstage. I guarantee you will be gasping for air as your tears flow when their new world of hope outside of the walls of Elmwood Prison falls apart.
With such specific characters making up the tale, playwright and director Grafton Doyle went on a nationwide search to find three perfect actors to portray them, two of whom needed to play trans women with brutal honesty. And he found them in Donzell Lewis as Goldie, Malaya as Angel, and Michael Antosy as Blake, all of whom present a real-life examination of how you cannot change your life until you face the challenge of changing within yourself and taking responsibility for your actions.
After the performance, I spoke with Malaya who is making her theatrical debut as Angel in DOPE QUEENS. Her ultra-feminine appearance is a testimony to her own achievement of living her life exactly as she is, right down to her soul. She is utterly and totally believable as the Hispanic trans woman, pushing us to care about who Angel is and how her struggle to exist has brought her to this place in The Loin. Malaya describes her performance as a testament "to all of the Angels and Goldies out there who have been rejected by their worlds," knowing she "is a testament to what they could be if they were to have the love and support they deserve for living authentically, bravely, and freely in their truth." Her performance is not to be missed.
The same can be said of Donzell Lewis, an actor, comedian, drag queen and educator who brings the emotionally-challenged Goldie to the DOPE QUEENS stage, who we meet at the beginning of the play as she dances around attempting to bleach the gloom from the walls of her new, one-room "home" being shared with Blake. Known for winning the grand prize in UCB's Drag Race competition as his warrior princess Layali Sunshine while performing show-stopping lip syncs and marital arts in heels, no doubt those unique skills certainly contributed to his amazing, muscular calves on full display in short skirts while cleaning, singing and dancing to the radio.
The radio, featuring the voice of Rob Callaway as the Radio Announcer, also plays an important part of Blake's life, with him often dancing around while admiring his own masculine body in the wall mirror. His feminine movements on display by Michael Antosy often reminded me of Buffalo Bill in "The Silence of the Lambs," especially when he danced around to the radio celebrating his body after shooting up, decked out in a flowing red, floor-length silk robe. Antosy masterfully dominates the stage during Blake's mental breakdown with the radio announcer speaking directly to him as his own private inner devil, pushing him over the edge into a depression from which the addict may never recover.
I could go on and on about these three marvelous actors who give so much of themselves to these challenging roles, and the wonder of Doyle's script and direction, but I would rather inspire you to order your tickets and experience DOPE QUEENS for yourself. Be sure to arrive early enough to read through the incredibly thorough and highly informative program notes relating to the realness of the places, situations and characters to enhance your appreciation of how this World Premiere play really reflects The Tenderloin and its residents, as well as the struggles of trans women in the world, exactly the way they truly are. And be sure to bring tissues.
The entire award-winning design team is to be congratulated on their contributions to the authenticity of the production, Set Design by Tom Buderwitz; Lighting Design by Andrew Schmedake; Sound Design by Cricket S. Myers; Costume and Make-Up Design by Sasha Markgraf; Production Stage Manager Kajal Ardestani; and to producers John Reyes, Julio Lopez Velasquez and Melanie Weisner for believing in the importance of bringing Grafton's story to the stage.
The world premiere of DOPE QUEENS written and directed by Grafton Doyle runs through Sunday, September 22 at the Hudson Mainstage Theatre, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd. in Hollywood on Fridays & Saturdays at 8pm & Sundays at 3pm. Tickets are $35 for all performances, with tickets and more information available at dopequeensplay.com or by calling 323-960-7738.
Photo Credit: Michael Lamont