Often hilarious Lavender Men presents Abe Lincoln in a Black, queer fantasia

Photo by Jenn Udoni

Some years ago, I came across articles suggesting that Abe Lincoln, before he was President, engaged in at least one relationship in Springfield early in his career as an attorney. These insinuations, despite being proffered by respected authors like C.A. Tripp, have often been debunked as stemming from a misunderstanding of 19th Century mores about men sharing beds, a not uncommon situation that did not need to imply sexuality. Still, the possibility is tantalizing, and queer playwright Roger Q. Mason bases their Lavender Men, a historical fantasia in which the 16th President’s story is told by an often hysterically funny (self-defined) queer, fat, multiracial femme named Taffeta who can conjure historical figures.

Mason describes their creation as “kitschy, improvisational, and fabulous. Literally, the stuff of fables.” But Taffeta (as performed in About Face Theatre’s production by Julian “Joolz” Stroop in an uninhibited, totally in-your-face performance) is also someone plagued by internalized homophobia and racism. In the play, the character plays themself—the aforementioned “fabulous” femme—as well as Sadie, a Black office cleaner in Lincoln’s law office, and Mary Todd Lincoln, the President’s much-maligned wife. Sadie remains determinedly aloof from any aspect of her boss’s personal life; the First Lady desperately tries to hold onto her husband’s love; Taffeta’s desperation stems from frequent and debilitating voices in her head. Mary and Taffeta clearly represent what can happen if someone seems outside the heteronormative parameters of society, and—no matter what Taffeta wants and demands—it isn’t at all fabulous. They live within the walls of that society, and the walls cannot contain them.

Stroop’s performance redefines the overused term tour de force; this is what happens when an actor absolutely absorbs the character they are playing. From the first time Taffeta appears, festooned in fantastically gay patriotic garb and ready to party, it is obvious that we have never seen anything like them before. And when they pull the historical personages of Lincoln (Matt Martin) and his longtime friend Elmer Ellsworth, the first Union soldier to die in the Civil War (Shea Petersen), out of thin air and promise to “change the ending” of their stories, it is clear that anything is possible. So when it becomes obvious that Mason has written a truly gay fantasia—which, let’s face it, can’t possibly come as a surprise to anyone who is even remotely familiar with About Face’s work—we know that no holds will be barred.

Martin’s and Petersen’s performances are strong and at times even remarkable—Martin as a magically transformed and much more handsome Honest Abe fighting his own inner desires and Petersen as the sweet and genuine object of those desires—but it is Stroop who owns this show, much as Taffeta is ultimately the puppet master whose vision propels the narrative. With director Lucky Stiff, they have manifested Mason’s totally unique main character: someone who is true to their own nature in the face of a lifetime of derision, yet maintains the potential to be emotionally eviscerated by memories of that derision. Taffeta’s “fabulousness” is their armor against the memories of so many who have abused them in the past. Unfortunately for them, the armor is permeable: they may not be destroyed by the voices, but they can be broken. The interior battle against that break is the thing that fuels Taffeta and their entire narrative, the underlying message being that society seeks to undermine and attenuate anyone who does not conform to its standards and it is very difficult indeed to fight against it.

Stiff’s staging is brilliant. The play is performed on a morphing set—lots of pull-out bits and swing-out walls—designed to look vaguely like the Ford Theatre, where Lincoln was assassinated. The set, by Caitlin McLeod, maintains our memory on that dark event to the point that we might wonder if Taffeta is going to change that ending. Alas, fabulous or not, they don’t possess that kind of power even in a dream play. Maybe they could, if it were not for the societal condemnations replaying so often in their mind, but the voices get in the way. As the play progresses and the relationship between Lincoln and Ellsworth becomes more explicit, Taffeta finds themself lost in the fantasy at times, caught up in its wish-fulfillment. Meanwhile, through the expedient of a backdrop comprised of three revolving mini-stages, Stroop’s second character, Mary Todd Lincoln, emerges as a sympathetic personification of a misunderstood and even scorned woman. (Kudos to Anna Wooden, whose simple period costume pieces easily transform Stroop a vista into Lincoln’s wife.)

In the end, even Taffeta can’t maintain the illusion that a lifetime of disparagement can be overcome simply through the imagination. Still, their immersion in the fantasia, though it seems to have reasonably diminished their humor, might yet have made them stronger. In the end, in costuming less “fabulous” than militant—at one point they even strip off their wig, revealing a starkly bald pate—they feel more sure of themself as a vital, powerful messenger of both queer and Black America. This is a play that, as it insistently reveals characters and events as they might have been, also manages to evoke an ideal of America that we only wish we could achieve.

Lavender Men is presented by About Face Theatre and is now playing at the Den Theatre (thedentheatre.com) until June 8. Performance times vary; check the website at About Face Theatre. Find more information about current plays on our Current Shows page and at theatreinchicago.com.

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