When a Straight Irishman Stumbles into a Gay Parade

Brian Fleming presents his “A Sacrilegious Lesbian & Homosexual Parade” at Frigid New York. | HORSE TRADE THEATER GROUP

Brian Fleming presents his “A Sacrilegious Lesbian & Homosexual Parade” at Frigid New York. | HORSE TRADE THEATER GROUP

It all started with the big drum.

“I had built the biggest drum in the world, 15 feet in diameter,” Brian Fleming said. “The drum they called the biggest drum in the world, it looked like a little bongo compared to mine!”

Fleming, who lives in County Clare, Ireland, decided that the world’s largest drum needed to come to America. For St. Patrick’s Day.

What drummer, drummer Brian Fleming learned about inclusiveness in Queens

“I phoned up the Fifth Ave. parade, and they said they don’t do floats,” he recalled. “So I found the St. Pat’s for All Parade and [its founder] Brendan Fay, and it turned out he was on his way to Dublin. So we ended up meeting. And I was thinking: a New York City gay rights activist, this guy was going to be dressed like Elton John or Liberace, but he was just a raving normal guy and we got to talking and talking and talking… I could see how passionate he was about the parade, and he could see how passionate I was about my drum.”

The drum never made it to New York. It would have cost a fortune to ship it. But the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs did send Fleming and several other Irish musicians to the St. Pat’s for All Parade, the inclusive parade in Sunnyside, Queens, begun in response to Manhattan’s exclusion of LGBT groups. It was the start of a relationship that has spanned more a decade and encompassed dozens of musicians, concerts, parades, and now a solo show, “A Sacrilegious Lesbian & Homosexual Parade,” written and performed by Fleming. Directed by Raymond Keane, it’s having its US premiere at Frigid NY, for six performances beginning February at 19 at Under St. Mark’s Theater.

When he got to New York, Fleming “couldn’t believe the drama going on around the parade and what Irish-Americans were saying about it, and that the Church was sort of lining up against Brendan. At that point in Ireland, we were just starting to have a lot of influx of immigrants. We had one Nigerian member in our band, playing djembe, and then we get to Queens and finally got to see the actual melting pot that people talk about all the time in places where it hasn’t happened. Queens, where you have every race under the sun living together and mostly getting on.”

On the day of the parade, Fleming recalled “it was so uplifting. When you look up and see people leaning out of the buildings: all different colors, all different ethnicities, all enjoying the parade, it’s a great example of what a St. Patrick’s parade could be. And the whole thing of making Irishness an excuse for exclusivity is anathema to me.”

Fleming’s musical career includes more than 40 albums and work in dozens of countries, and his travels gave him the urge to write about his experiences and how they changed him.

“A lot of the work I do is as a drummer /musician,” he said. “You’re the guy backing people. You make songs happen and it’s not always clear to the person listening what it is you did. Often it’s very hard for me to point out that’s the bit I did. A builder builds a house — ‘I made it, people live in it.’ In music, you can find it very difficult to say, ‘This is me, this is what I did.’”

Fleming’s first show, “Gis a Shot of Your Bongos Mister” (2011) was about “some parts of my life where I was traveling over to Africa and bringing African musicians to Ireland, to working class neighborhoods in Dublin. I sent it to the Fringe in Dublin, and they accepted it. Then they send you to some workshops on writing. I didn’t have my drums and had to read a bit of the piece. They didn’t laugh or throw me out or call me a fake. And I realized that the writing is valid. It passes.”

In his next show, “Have Yis No Homes To Go To” (2013), about joining a troupe of Clowns Without Borders to tour Rwanda, he used more words and visuals and less drumming. “So by the time I got to this one, I didn’t feel obliged to put in a whole lot of drumming,” he explained. “That’s my other thing. This is a theater thing. So I wanted to make a show about St. Pat’s for All.”

Originally, Fleming said, he had trouble with show’s arc and point of view. “I was actually intending to play a character called the Naked Panti Boy, who would be a cross between the Naked Cowboy and [Irish drag queen and activist] Panti Bliss,” he recalled. “Thankfully, dramaturg Michelle Read didn’t get that character at all. I’ve been saved that. Audiences should all be grateful to her.”

What Fleming was trying to sort out was how to include — or whether to mention — that he’s straight and that he felt the parade was Brendan Fay’s story.

“There are liberties you can take if you’re gay and you’re talking about other people persecuting gays in the way Panti does; she gives them an awful teasing,” Fleming said. “If you’re straight, you don’t feel you have the right to talk about things in the same way. And I was trying to figure whether and when I should out myself as straight.” Bliss’ manager, advising him to play it “straight” from the start, pointed out the significance of the play in the context of the public debate over the upcoming marriage equality referendum in Ireland.

“He said, ‘This is important. When the equality referendum comes up, we all know which way the gay people are going to vote, but we need this middle ground of allies who can see it from their own point of view,’” Fleming recalled. “‘Your perspective is valuable and valid too.’”

With that Fleming went back to work.

“I ended up taking a sort of gonzo Irish perspective: stumbling into things clumsily and going on and discovering stuff that way,” he said. “I just stumble in as a heterosexual Irish person trying to dress up camp to fit into the parade and not really getting it, which is the way it was. I brought the Irish musicians and had no idea of LGBT issues, just knew I had met some really good people and we were having a good time and doing something right.”

A SACRILEGIOUS LESBIAN & HOMOSEXUAL PARADE | Horse Trade Theater Group | Under St. Marks Theater, 94 St. Marks Pl., btwn. First Ave. & Ave A | Feb. 19 at 5: 30 p.m.; Feb. 23 at 10:30 p.m.; Feb. 28, Mar. 4 at 7:10 p.m.; Mar. 7 at 12:30 p.m.; Mar. 8 at 1:50 p.m. | $15; $10 for students & seniors at horsetrade.info

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