Arts & EntertainmentStage

Fluid Foremother

Suzanne Vega brings queer pioneer Carson McCullers to life.

By Neil Ellis Orts

Asinger/songwriter whose career spans over three decades, Suzanne Vega is perhaps best known for her 1980s hits, including “Luka” and “Tom’s Diner.”

Now, you can add playwright and actress to Vega’s résumé.

From February 9 through March 11, Houston’s Alley Theatre premieres Vega’s one-woman show about Carson McCullers, the bisexual and gender-fluid mid-20th century American author.

Vega wrote both the script and lyrics to Lover/Beloved: An Evening with Carson McCullers, which features music composed by Duncan Sheik (Spring Awakening, American Psycho).

Most famous for The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, The Ballad of the Sad Café, and Member of the Wedding (which she also adapted for the stage), McCullers  was married twice to the same man, but also had romantic feelings for women. She dressed mostly in men’s clothing and sometimes said she felt more like a man than a woman. After suffering two crippling strokes in her 30s, McCullers died at the age of 50 in 1967.

OutSmart recently sat down with Vega to discuss her upcoming show.

Neil Ellis Orts: The format of the show is two lectures given by McCullers—one early in her career, and one shortly before her death at the age of 50. Are you using actual lectures she gave as a basis?
Suzanne Vega: She did at least one lecture at the 92nd Street Y in the mid-1950s with Tennessee Williams, but the lecture dates in the play are fictional.

This is your third iteration of the show, and earlier iterations did not use this lecture format.
No, and they weren’t as satisfying. Because she [was] such a solitary character—she spent a lot of time in her room, writing—I wanted to have her face an audience, which was a terrifying activity for her. I felt there was an inherent drama in the situation of her being on a stage and having to face a group of strangers. I love the idea that she has to reach over the footlights and make a connection with these strangers, which is both thrilling and terrifying.

Last year, you released a concept album with much of the music from the play. One song comes up a lot in your interviews, so here it is again: “Harper Lee,” a song about professional envy. Do you have similar feelings about other singer-songwriters?
[Laughing] Uh, sure. I am not a saint, and of course I’ve had my moments like that. But [the song also has] a fair amount of my stepfather, Ed Vega, who was a writer. So I would hear all his comments at the dinner table as to who won the Pulitzer, and his feelings [about that]. I think it’s very natural. And the thing is, she loved a lot of those people, too. She was very good friends with Truman Capote. She had a huge crush on Katherine Anne Porter. You love them and you hate them. It’s part of life.

This show was not always intended as a starring vehicle for you. How did you end up as the one to perform it?
The process was very simple. Gregory Boyd looked at me and said, “Would you like to do it?” And I said, “Gosh, yeah!” I had it all set up for someone else to do, and he said there was nothing wrong with the other person, but he saw something interesting in the way I was doing it. So I’m thrilled to be able to do it, and I’ll also be thrilled when it comes time to hand it over to someone else. I have ideas. I’d especially love to see someone else—say, a transgender actor—do the first act. It could be male-to-female or female-to-male, because she lived on that line and considered herself “dual-natured,” as she put it. In the second act, she’s paralyzed. If I could find a person who could sing and act and had something of her disability, I think that would be exciting to see on stage. So I hope this play goes way beyond what I can do with it.

She spoke and wrote about her queerness, but I have to wonder what vocabulary she would use today, since the language around sexuality and gender identity has grown so much since she lived.
Sure, she would have used different language, but it all means the same thing. She was both bisexual and to some degree transgender. She felt herself as a man. She loved her husband, but she also was in love with any number of women. So in both her sexuality and her gender, it was all quite fluid.

I feel like there is so much longing in most of her work. Do you feel that, too?
Yeah, I think she definitely felt that. I think a lot of it came from her illnesses. But then again, if you look at pictures of her as a child, she seems to have had that from pretty early on—way before she became sick. There’s a photograph of her at some kind of party sitting on a horse, sort of posing on a pony, and she looks absolutely miserable. It really is her look, already developed—and she’s like four or five or something like that.

So I think she was just born with a kind of attitude that was exacerbated by things that happened to her in her life. That’s probably also why I’m drawn to her [and] identify with her. I have also been a person who takes care of people—whoever’s around. I was the oldest of four children and my parents were very young, so I tried to look after whoever needed looking after. I also feel her need, and in a sense try to help. So it’s both that I identify with her, and that I’m also trying to help her, to get her word out beyond the grave.

This article appears in the February 2018 edition of OutSmart Magazine. 


Neil Ellis Orts

Neil Ellis Orts is a writer living in Houston. His creative writing has appeared in several small press journals and anthologies and his novella, Cary and John is available wherever you order books. He is a frequent contributor to OutSmart.
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