Review: Grab a Seat with the "Ladies at a Gay Girls' Bar"

Ladies at a Gay Girls' Bar, 1938-1969

Choreographed, written, and performed by Maggie Cee

Presented by In the Streets Productions at UNDER St. Marks

94 St. Marks Place, Manhattan, NYC

June 24 and 29, 2024

Maggie Cee in Ladies at a Gay Girls' Bar. Photo by Olivia Blaidsell.
Communal gathering spaces can shape identity while fostering community, and, for queer people, one of those spaces has long been the gay bar. Just how long can be seen in the subtitle of Maggie Cee's solo show Ladies at a Gay Girls' Bar, 1938-1969 (and one can doubtless point to even earlier analogues, such as Eve Adams' Tearoom in 1920s Greenwich Village). With music and dance providing both connective tissue and additional layers of signification, Cee incisively and entertainingly knits voices from these spaces together with the narrative of a quest for self-definition and a call for further excavation of the stories of a certain, underrepresented segment of the lesbian community. Ladies at a Gay Girls' Bar, 1938-1969 is currently part of the 2024 Queerly Festival, presented by FRIGID New York and curated by FRIGID Co-Artistic Director Jimmy Lovett. Founded in 2014, the festival, which provides a space for queer teams and artists both on- and off-stage, runs from June 13th to July 3rd.

In the show, Cee inhabits, with adroit distinctiveness, several characters from across the decades–Elsie and Dorothy, who patronized lesbian bars, and Midge, who worked at one, as well as a teenage Maggie, whose work on a term paper in the 1990s also acts as frame for her exploration of her sexual identity and femininity–and integrates these performances with textual excerpts and voiceover and archival recordings. Simply discovering that lesbian is an available identity and that there are other lesbians out there is a foundational first step for some of these women. But questions around how to occupy that identity of course remain: if gender expression can be influenced by sexuality, and if gender consists of repeated acts of performance, from where do we draw our repertoire of such acts? Much of what the play's women talk about touches on such questions, especially on the models of butch and femme, including misconceptions about them and their dynamics; but these characters are also concerned with less large-scale issues, like the initial nervousness of first going to a lesbian bar or how to get women there to ask for a dance. The production, which draws on archives and published works (helpfully cataloged in the program, along with the show's musical selections), also acknowledges that lesbian bars were historically primarily white spaces, with Black lesbians more likely to socialize at house parties or similar venues. Neither are the books to which some of the characters turn above critique, however helpful and pathbreaking they may have been, and Cee critiques them, calling out, for instance, the misogyny in Ann Aldrich's 1955 non-fiction lesbian pulp We Walk Alone. The show's critiques also encompass the rigid binaries and norms (in relationships as well as in public spaces) that can be enforced within queer communities; other lesbians, for example, may disrespect femmes or demonize them for ability to "pass," and Cee's show wonders about what she calls the seeming disappearance of later-in-life femmes and their voices.
Maggie Cee in Ladies at a Gay Girls' Bar. Photo by Olivia Blaidsell.
Cee's playing all of the various characters works as a nice metaphorization of the journey of self-exploration for teenage Maggie (or, really, any of the women represented), a sort of literal trying on of different models or options that is also a self-insertion within a queer historical continuum (and the costume design smartly works across the time periods covered). The use of dance as a fundamental part of the performance aligns both with its importance to the culture of lesbian bars and all that they provided as well as with dance's broader and longstanding links to sex–there are, in fact, a couple of choreography-forward seduction scenes–and offers another mode of becoming others. While as the play concludes, the choreographies associated with the different characters come together, they simultaneously remain distinct, symbolizing, like the mismatched chairs also associated with individual characters, different ways to be a gay woman. Ladies at a Gay Girls' Bar, 1938-1969 suggests that queer women have come far and have far yet to go, and the show itself represents an insightful, absorbing, and fun stop along that path.

-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards


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