By ELIZA BENT
In the case of the new musical War Lesbian, the title came first.
Once that evocative name was in place, playwright and performer Kristine Haruna Lee, who wrote the show with composer Kathryn Hathaway, began researching female driven, queer-centered myths. "Myths are always a really big part of my creative process," she says. "Whenever I am looking for something to ground me, I turn to myth."
Ultimately, it was an Inuit story about a girl named Sedna that sparked Lee's imagination for the show, which runs at Dixon Place through Dec. 20.
In the story Sedna, played by downtown doyenne Erin Markey, lives in a small village, where her family is trying to marry her off. Though she encounters multiple suitors, she refuses them all, and the men keep mysteriously disappearing. "It turns out that Sedna has been eating these men and her parents find out," Lee explains. "There are a few different versions of the myth. In one version she ends up eating her parents. There's another one where her father takes her out on a boat into the ocean and throws her overboard. But Sedna clings on to the boat. He then chops off her fingers, and her fingers turn into seals in the ocean and she becomes this major goddess, an Inuit champion."
The first half of War Lesbian hews closely to the original stories. Sedna's hand, for instance, is embodied by two singers who narrate the proceedings. But in the second half, the plot explodes. "The narrative gets looser and more abstract, but we also get a more traditional musical theatre arc with characters singing their own songs and using song to express ideas and emotion," Lee says. Meanwhile, underwater, Sedna meets Qualar, a trans god, and struggles between fighting her war of self-actualization and falling in love.
Meanwhile, war takes on a larger and looser interpretation in War Lesbian than it does in, say, your typical combat drama. As Lee says, "Sedna is a woman who rather than playing a role prescribed to her by her community chooses to live beyond the boundary. This translates to women I see every day going after their dreams and fighting for what they desire. I think that manifests as a kind of war that you wage to exist in this concrete jungle instead of in a village. It becomes a metaphor about following, or not following, the norms."
Though rooted in mythology, War Lesbian also has a good dose of contemporary humor. Lee, who plays Ellen DeGeneres in the first half of the play, admits a love of crass humor. But the dirty jokes serve a dramaturgical purpose: they highlight Sedna's true originality. "She rejects Ellen, this iconic lesbian figure, to create her own sense of queerness and her own relationship to sexuality and identity," Lee says. "She chooses to live in a mysterious dark underworld and live in a higher conscious state."
Eliza Bent is a playwright and reporter based in Brooklyn
Photo by Sasha Aleksandra Arutyunova