Telling It Like It Was

Barbara Kahn takes sharp eye for history to 19th century lesbians

If you think the market for lesbian drama is limited, imagine how small the market for lesbian historical drama must be.

Yet New York playwright Barbara Kahn has made her living writing lesbian historical drama for the past 12 years. She has won awards, performed in festivals, conducted workshops, directed, produced and acted in both her own and other writers’ plays. And every year—this being no exception—The Theater for the New City welcomes her back again to stage her spring show. This year’s play opens Feb. 24 and runs for three weeks.

The play, “The Ballad of Baxter Street,” presents a host of social ills both historical and contemporary—anti-Semitism, the plight of immigrants, racism, statutory rape and, of course, “the love that dare not speak its name.”

In the mid-1800s, that love was perhaps less commonly practiced than it is today, but it was also less often overtly prohibited—for the reason that few suspected two unmarried (or married, for that matter) women with a strong attachment of being anything other than close friends. This allowed for a certain freedom in women’s relationships with one another, as any good feminist historian will tell you.

Kahn is certainly that, but in her depiction of one of the play’s central relationships, that of the cross-dressing magician-in-training, Bridget Hennessey, and the underage damsel-in-distress, Sophie Landau, the subject is treated so blithely that a modern lesbian viewer might wonder what bad luck had her born into the disapproving 20th century.

This is just one example of Kahn, an adept weaver of an entertaining tale to be sure, straying from probable truth.

In her depiction of another of the play’s central relationships, that of gallant Irish immigrant Jimmy Rogan and his African-American wife Rose, Kahn creates an almost caricaturish scenario in which the ever-above-reproach biracial couple fends off constant assaults by boorish white men. Again, true then, as now, without a doubt. But audiences might appreciate a little complexity mixed in with their history lesson—at least, this audience member would have.

Could Rose and Jimmy’s love have remained so pure in such a social climate? Might an explanation be provided for why Patrick, Jimmy’s brother, makes such a point to torment the couple? Does Rose miss her own culture, her friends and family—mentioned once as “living uptown” and not referred to again. How could she possibly not?

Kahn’s long experience in the theater lends real authority to her work, and her research is impeccable, but the problem with “The Ballad of Baxter Street” is that it touches on interesting people at an interesting juncture of history, but stops far short of its own potential.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the play’s denouement, which involves—without giving anything away—an appalling crime. Kahn takes pains to assure us that the victim had it coming to him, and the perpetrator could not have done otherwise. This reviewer didn’t buy it, particularly since the victim never even appeared onstage to present his side of the case, as it were.

Maybe worse, Kahn’s treatment of this episode moves from superficial to laughable—even going so far as to spoof the event at the end of the play, when it makes its way into a theatrical variety show of sorts. To many viewers, both gay and straight, this questionable creative decision on Kahn’s part will resonate long after most of the play’s other elements have been forgotten.

All of that said, “The Ballad of Baxter Street” is a deft piece of work overall. Kahn has a good ear for dialogue, and knows how to keep the pace brisk and the tone upbeat. She assembles an appealing group of characters and works interesting historical fact into the storyline, one notable example being a subplot involving the consumptive French stage sensation, Rachel Felix, who toured America in the mid-19th century.

The play’s title comes from one particularly boisterous street in a New York City neighborhood called the Five Points, which did in fact exist just above the contemporary federal courthouse area downtown. Teeming with theater folk, immigrants of every nationality, and people of all racial and religious backgrounds, this area surely did, as Kahn indicates, encompass most of America’s social woes and brightest hopes in 1855.

But here again, the play falls short of its own possibilities, the setting resembling in most scenes any tenement neighborhood in Manhattan or, for that matter, elsewhere. Stock characters like the bullying Irish policeman, the fast-talking Italian organ grinder, the scrappy newsboys and winsome street urchins have visited the American stage before and will surely be back again.

Because Kahn has a strong grasp of history, because she can speak both from and to the lesbian experience specifically, because she is a native New Yorker and a Jew, one wants more of her particular perspective to come through. At the end of “The Ballad of Baxter Street,” what the viewer is left with is a desire for more—a tribute to her ability, in a sense. One can’t help wishing she would dig a little deeper, come up with something more startling, unique and fresh, while continuing to employ the skills that guarantee her that annual spring show at The Theater for The New City, and inclusion in festivals and workshops throughout the rest of the year.

In all theater, but in gay theater in particular, it’s not enough now just to tell a good story. It’s not enough to entertain people and it’s certainly not enough to educate them. “The Ballad of Baxter Street” does all of that, make no mistake.

But in a genre as relatively unexplored as lesbian historical drama, more depth and resonance—more courage, in fact—is called for. To challenge and surpass the best theater of any genre, while giving lesbians a sense of the richness of their own history, would be a goal worth striving for. Playwright Barbara Kahn, all but unique in her field, may be just the woman for the job.

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