Chris passed away in June. It was in the morning when I found out. My phone lit up with a faint glow. The branches quivered like the horns of a herd of antelope. I opened the screen and read his obituary. Despite half the country separating us and years since I last saw him, his obituary didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know, except that he was twenty-eight.
I clicked on the screen, ready to delegate his death to the Tragedies of Old Friends file – a collection that grows little by little every year – but I couldn’t. We were cross country together. I laced my shoes and I saw him, on the starting line, nervously relacing his own. I went out for coffee. His ghost ran past. It’s as if, in this grief, everything but distance is short.
I wrote Chris a letter and threw it in the bay. It was June, which means Pride, which means things to do, which means marches and music. When my friend Luke told me about Lavender Nights, a new queer cabaret presented at the Center by the InfraSound ensemble, I thought “perfect”. My mood called for a celebration of life, of sex. I wanted to see all my friends and collaborators who are still there. There is no cabaret without grief, no party without its opposite.
On the night of the show, my partner Charlie and I were late. We ran as hard as we could past Charles Street, the AIDS Memorial and St. Vincent. We rushed through the doors of the Center, then climbed the stairs quickly but politely. I marked the geography of loss as we went, and as we sat down, my muscles quietly quivered; the InfraSound set has warmed up. It occurred to me that my body hadn’t been still for days. I’ve always had the habit that feelings don’t find their place in words.
As the ensemble – a gay-led band from a group of close friends from the Manhattan School of Music’s contemporary performance program – warmed up, Stephanie Proulx’s flute shimmered in the light like an oil spill. Cutting through the somber atmosphere at the end of yet another Supreme Court legislative session in America, Kurt Weill’s “Kanonensong” filled the air with a bouncy, gritty sense of anticipation. It is a staple of the cabaret genre. “What inspired me was listening to Weill’s Threepenny Opera,” Yoshi Weinberg, the ensemble’s artistic director, told GO. “The cabaret was very much about escapism, as well as sexual deviation and social commentary on the politics of the day.”
Lavender Nights is a journey through time, an exploration of genres, queer music, politics and deep personal loss. The show begins in the 1920s in Weimer, Germany, an inter-rainy period. Magnus Hirschfield’s Institut für Sexualwissenschaft (or Institute of Sexology) amassed a large library of queer knowledge, advocating for and employing trans people and their rights, and pioneering transgender health care. As the show begins, the show’s emcee and countertenor, Luke Paulino, shakes his foot behind a stage barrier and walks upstage.
“Wilcommen! Welcome ! Welcome!” he sings. “Leave your worries out. So life is disappointing, forget it! Here, life is good. The girls are beautiful, even the orchestra is beautiful! a sexy innuendo for each of the show’s ten performers. Someone’s favorite instrument is the skin flute. The conductor sits on a stool for once. And if we think the trumpeter’s tone is good, we should to see what she can do to a watermelon. Or something like that. It’s delicious. It goes by so quickly. And I’m completely amazed, drawn into the story, captivated by the music and the outfits.
When Sophie Delphis and Brian Mummert take the small stage, there is a slight tension between them. Delphis stands tall in an all-white suit, with shoulders so square they could carry me four. Mummert carries himself with an aura of an American athlete. Her knee-high socks seem intent on drawing your eyes to tight-fitting short shorts and a suit jacket at the top. They both play gender roles, with a queer yet classic formality.
“There was a time,” he sings, “and now it’s all gone / When we lived together, me and her.” Delphis rolled her eyes and looked at the audience as if to say, “Okay, yeah, but that made sense at the time.”
“The way we were was just the way to be / I cared about her and she took care of me,” he continues. “The milkman rang, I got out of bed / I opened his purse, paid him what he said. / I’ll have a glass of milk / Back in bed I’ll climb / You understand, she was working all this time.
Even amid the nostalgia for the scene, the trauma lingers. Bitterness and bad feelings pierce the pretty veils. “We locked the door,” they sing together, “and everyone started wandering. Sweet goodbye two by four we called home.
After that, we won’t see the two together again until the very end. The rest of the first act contains genre songs like Micha Spoliansky’s “Maskulinum-Femininum”, Tom Lehrer’s hilarious anti-love song “Masochism Tango”, and ends with another piece by Spoliansky: “The Lavender Song”. . It’s Paulino’s return to the stage and he sings so happily, “We’re not afraid to be queer and different. / If it means hell, well hell, we’ll take the risk. / They are all so straight, tense, straight and rigid. They walk in step; we prefer to dance. / We see a world of romance and fun. All they can see is pure banality. Lavender night, our greatest treasure, where we can be exactly what we want to be.
But even in this song, violence and consequences are inherent. “Round us all together, send us away. That’s what you would really like to do,” Paulino sings. Every enthusiastic rhyme, every carefree tune, and every flute trill has its counter in the baritone and deep quivering trumpets. The ground falls from every fantasy, as it did when the Nazis burned all the books at the Hirschfield Institute. Even in that auditorium, it was hard not to look back to the events of the day—the death of Chris, the Supreme Court, all the grim things that awaited these characters as the 1940s approached—and whatever horrors that will come tomorrow. But we keep celebrating when we can’t sleep.
“The joy, pleasure and sexual freedom felt in the first act quickly turns into a yearning for something lost [in the second act]”, Yoshi tells me. They achieve this feeling by combining contemporary compositions like Yann Tiersen’s soundtrack for Amélie with iconic mid-century tunes like Edith Piaf’s “Padam Padam”, “On n’oublie rien” by Jacques Brel and “La diva de l’empire” These are songs for the long moments between the golden age and paradise regained.
In “I see you”, sings Sophie, “I understood your distress, dear lover / and I yield to your desires: / make me your mistress. / Far from us wisdom / no more sadness. / I long for the previous moment when we will be happy. I want you.” A few minutes later, another Brel song plays and the singers say, “We don’t forget anything / We don’t forget anything at all. / We don’t forget anything / We get used to it’s everything.
In all these songs, there is a strong political note. The war drives people, their music and their styles across Europe. Every moment of hope, whether in America, France or elsewhere, is simultaneously haunted by memories of ease, loss and liberation. The ensemble performs “Memories (A, Very Pleasant; and B, Rather Sad)” by Charles Ives.
Over the decades and nations of these memories, new songs are written and new celebrations occur, but a better era is always in the making and never quite permanent.
In the show’s final and most anachronistic moment, Paulino takes the stage for MIKA’s “Over My Shoulder.” It’s a dark song from an otherwise colorful album, 2007’s Life in Cartoon Motion. But in this context, it fits. It’s like those photos of historical figures who somehow look like celebrities or time travelers. It works because “time” is the problem, is the problem, our inability to always be in the present even though the present is always always.
“Over my shoulder / Running away.” Paulino sings: “I feel like I’m falling. / Wasting my day…. / Blur my daylight / Torture my night / I feel like I’m falling / Out of sight.
It’s July now. Pride month is over. Someone told me this time of year is like when you start cleaning up after a party. All the guests have left. It’s just you and me in our homes, picking up, planning for next year. And it strikes me that although June has been heavy this year – it hasn’t even offered us the illusions of massive reform or repair that recent summers have – we’ve been here before. We sang through it. I think of Chris, who is still there and not. Except now he’s not running, he won’t, he can’t. There is no going back to that time. There are still pictures. In almost everyone, we are side by side. For days I avoided looking at them. But cabaret or no cabaret, no evasion or avoidance totally drives away those feelings.