Yes, This Is What It Was Like to Be a Lesbian in the '80s
By JEN GUSHUE
Thursday, October 31, 2019  •  
Thu Oct 31, 2019  •  
Acting  •   0 comments Share This
"When I first read the play, my question was, 'Well, aren't they gonna make out?'"

Marga Gomez sparks a queer awakening in a new play at Ars Nova

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Marga Gomez isn't used to playing with others. Over the course of her 35-year career as an actor and stand-up comic, she's written and performed in 13 solo shows, and was even dubbed "the lesbian Lenny Bruce" by Robin Williams. But though she usually works alone, she couldn't pass up the role of Meg in Liza Birkenmeier's play Dr. Ride's American Beach House, currently running at Ars Nova's Greenwich House Theater.

The director, Katie Brook, thought of Gomez for the part after watching her in Spanking Machine, an autobiographical solo piece about the first time she kissed a boy and how it made them both gay. Brook was looking for a lesbian with a certain swagger for Meg, a self-assured but gentle butch whose presence shifts the dynamic between two BFFs, Matilda and Harriet (Erin Markey and Kristin Sieh). Brook thought the 59-year-old performer fit the bill and Gomez was happy to go along for the ride, especially since, "The cast parties are way better than with solo shows."

Set on a St. Louis rooftop the night before Dr. Sally Ride's historic 1983 space flight, Dr. Ride has a will-they-or-won't-they energy from the start as twentysomethings Matilda and Harriet trade barbs and banter about their dead-end lives. Meg's entrance about a third of the way through awakens the possibility of romance between the two friends. "I'm a presence that, even without words, triggers this realization of the possibility of a love relationship," Gomez explains.

Meg, who sports combat boots and a Motorhead T-shirt, wasn't too much of a stretch for Gomez: One of the first openly lesbian performers in the nation, she is deeply familiar with the community. But she still had to punch it up a bit. "Me personally, I'm more of a soft butch," Gomez says. "It's not that I'm masculine; I just have a lack of femininity. The character I play is more of a butch-butch. They cut my hair short, she's more masculine in her walk, she crosses her legs in that manspreading way."

The cast of
The cast of 'Dr. Ride's American Beach House;' photo by Danny Bristoll

There's not much explicit talk of queerness in Dr. Ride, much to Gomez's initial dismay. "When I first read the play, my question was, 'Well, aren't they gonna make out?' Gomez recalls. "'Or am I gonna get to make out with somebody? I thought I was going to get to make out with people!' And as we were developing it, I was always suggesting, 'Maybe they should make out.'"

Despite Gomez's urging, Birkenmeier -- whose absurdist play the hollower ran at Access Theater last year -- opted for subtlety, subtext and her signature ambiguity. As Gomez dove deeper into the world of the show, she started to understand the playwright's approach, and even recognized her own experiences as a young lesbian in the '80s -- the knowing glances, the missed connections, the surreptitious flirting.

"That's how we did things back then," Gomez says. "You'd hope for an opening. You might not push, but you'd drive somebody across the country thinking maybe somewhere along the line they'd give you a green light. You just bided your time."

In an era when butch characters are often dripping with machismo and sexual energy -- think Lea DeLaria's character on Orange Is the New Black -- it's refreshing to watch Meg be gentle and sweet. She may be waiting for an opening with these ladies, but she's understanding and thoughtful in the meantime. And Gomez is embracing the role -- even though there's no making out. As she says, "I'm really enjoying just being kind."

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Jen Gushue is a freelance theatre writer with bylines in American Theatre, HowlRound and Business Insider. Follow her on Twitter at @jengushue. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.

Top image: Marga Gomez. Photo by Brenna Merrit.

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