American playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney is riding high after two successful productions of his plays in London and a newly-minted Evening Standard Theatre Award sitting on his mantelpiece. Now the Royal Court stages his third play in the UK, Wig Out!
A totally reconfigured theatre awaits the audience as they filter into the Royal Court’s Jerwood Theatre Downstairs to take their seats on three sides of a catwalk that now runs down the middle of the auditorium. The stage is set for this bold, brash new play centring on the House of Light, a ‘family’ of transvestites, and its rivalry with a competing house.
As with McCraney’s previous plays, The Brothers Size and In The Red And Brown Water, both staged at the Young Vic earlier this year, Wig Out! is characterised by rapid dialogue which flies – and is sometimes hurled – back and forth between the characters. Also like those plays, there is an element of narration in which the characters speak aloud the stage directions for themselves and other characters. But this happens to a much lesser extent in Wig Out!, mainly coming from three twenty-something girls, the ‘Fates’, clad in figure-hugging silver outfits, who serve as narrators, backing singers and onlookers.
They introduce us to Eric (Alex Lanipekun), a gay man into masculine men. He meets Wilson (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett), a gay transvestite who goes by the name of Nina. After a night of passion, de-wigged, Wilson/Nina takes Eric home to the House of Light. There, he is chastised by his ‘parents’ – Puerto Rican man Lucian and transvestite Rey-Rey – for turning up in the masculine garb of hoodie and Caterpillar boots rather than the wig and frock of Nina.
The difficulties of establishing and maintaining an identity in this trans-gender world is central to McCraney’s play. Cross-dressing may be the ultimate freedom of expression and personal choice, but Wilson is nevertheless denied the freedom to do as he pleases; his family’s outrage at his de-wigged arrival shows that he is categorised and judged by his own as much as he may be by any outsider. (S)he is allowed to be masculine or feminine, but must choose one box and stick to it.
Eric’s sex appeal, however, seems to operate outside boxes, as he attracts the attentions of the female ‘Fates’, the transvestites and the masculine gay men, including Danny Sapani’s Lucian.
Nina and the other inhabitants of the House must further prove their femininity when challenged by the rival House of Diabolique to perform at the annual Cinderella Ball. In Dominic Cooke’s production, most of the second half is dedicated to this sing-off, as the members of the two Houses take it in turns to mime and strut their stuff on the catwalk.
Throughout his play, McCraney intersperses brief scenes in which each character speaks directly to the audience, giving some indication of their background and childhood. This does not entirely reveal how they each came to consider the House of Light their family, but hints at the similarities which unite them. It may be flawed, it may be fickle and at times it may be cruel, but it is a family nevertheless.