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Bearded Ladies Cabaret at New York’s La Mama, musical theater takes on Walt Whitman’s racism

Tom Stoelker reviews "Contradict This!" a musical performance by the Bearded Ladies Cabaret for Stonewall at 50 that examines Walt Whitman's problematic history with racism. Read this post to learn why Stoelker thought the show was outstanding.


Last week, The Bearded Ladies Cabaret brought a full-fledged piece of musical theater to La Mama in New York City as part of the Stonewall 50 Celebration. Not to disparage the genre, as cabaret’s intimacy remains integral to the new work, but this grand musical could easily scale up to fill a Broadway house with its daring premise, diverse talent, clever book, and lively score.

The Ensemble of CONTRADICT THIS! Courtesy Plate 3 Photography
The Ensemble of CONTRADICT THIS! Courtesy Plate 3 Photography

Not that the Bearded Ladies would or should care about taking the show to the Great White Way—no doubt the Ladies’ multi-culti team would incorporate a smack-down on “Great” and “White” and take on any semblance of white fragility in the audience, for they do no less with the reputation of Walt Whitman, the subject of “Contradict This!” a celebration and a “musical trolling” that marks the 200th anniversary of Whitman’s birth.

The creators, which includes the songwriting cast, were directed by John Jarboe to take a deep dive into Whitman’s history. Each came back to the production with their own impressions, some influenced by previous experiences with the poet, others bringing entirely new revelations. A break neck history lesson infused with queer theory followed.

Whitman has become a gay hero hailing from a period when the contemporary notions of gay did not exist. Yes, he was homosexual, but blindly coopting his identity for contemporary LGBTQ+ sensibilities disregards the poet’s racist writings. For those not in the know, the fact that he called Black people “baboons” is pointedly delivered nearly halfway through the first act, but only after several cast members have sung love songs celebrating the poet.

On the love side, Daniel de Jesús (a friend of this writer) sang his sex kittenish ode to Whitman, titled “Daddy Poet,” while Pax Ressler, in a duet with Jackie Soro, revealed Ressler’s Mennonite childhood where the only gayness they experienced growing up was Whitman’s poems. Their rendition of “Best Sex I Never Had,” riled with rock that would make Hedwig proud.

With each of the performers collaborating on text and songs the entire cast jokingly sings “There is No Plot!” But, alas, there is a plot, and a very good one at that. Jarboe, with assists from Mary Tuomanen and dramaturge Sally Ollove, have so seamlessly woven together a series of stories created by the cast that it recalls Michael Bennett, Nicholas Dante, and James Kirkwood’s workshop-weaving that became A Chorus Line. But it’s longtime Bearded Lady musical collaborator Heath Allen who helped stitch a musical arc from the disparate genres, including: hip-hop, rock, opera, folk, and good ‘ol musical music.

After the love songs, a swift trial of Whitman’s legacy ensues, with Veronica Chapman-Smith’s lush soprano holding court. What was once a giant birthday cake of a stage, designed by William Boles, transforms into a courtroom thanks, in part, to crisp choreography by Jumatatu Poe. Both set and dance meld so thoroughly into the dialogue as to be considered part of the text. Tyler Mark Holland’s superb jester costumes add to the jovial atmosphere.

Another amusing conceit is the play’s unabashed self-consciousness. Performers don’t break down the fourth wall; there is no fourth wall. Concerns that exposing Whitman’s foibles will put funding from Penn Libraries and The Pew Center for Arts and Heritage at risk, get punctuated with cash throw to the wind while the cast sings out their worries about “the commission!”

Participants from the audience get called onto the stage as jurors, underscoring public opinion’s role in cancel culture—the notion that an idea, person, or work of art can be hounded out of existence via pressure from social media. Black Twitter muscles with in with commentary, as righteously represented by Soro, declaring that Walt Whitman has already been canceled, “Y’all just late to the party.”

Jackie Soro calls for Walt Whitman to be put on trial. Courtesy Plate 3 Photography
Jackie Soro calls for Walt Whitman to be put on trial. Courtesy Plate 3 Photography

If there’s any question as to the show’s ability to go on the road with the text so tied to the real-world personalities of its ensemble, that question was put to rest by Fernando Contreras, a gay Dominican, who stepped into the role originated by Anthony Martinez Briggs, who identifies as a straight Afro-Puerto Rican. Contreras, later said he related to the role beyond the artists’ parallel Latinx backgrounds. With just two weeks rehearsal Contreras inhabited the dense rap lyrics to “I Know We All Hungry,” to say nothing of the fully formed character that Martinez Briggs created for himself.

Indeed, the universality of each character is one of the show’s great strengths. Emily Bate’s approachable folk-infused music could belong to another. But while finding a young actor to play the role created by Elah Perelman could be done, it might prove difficult to draw out a similarly nuanced performance.

The show ends with a very contemporary question, that’s actually been asked by many a generation before social media arrived. What to do with the good things bad people leave behind? Do we stop listening to Michael Jackson? Stop watching Woody Allen movies? Should Warhol be banned? It’s the same question previous generations asked of Wagner. If we cancel them, where does it stop? Or will we all be canceled one day?

See video and more images at LaMama’s website


Tom Stoelker writes about art, architecture, and academia. He lives in New York, but identifies as Philadelphian.