Mary Hooper Holds Court
Our own theater royalty shines a light on Houston’s gay past and more.
Houston stage legends are converging for Dirt Dogs Theatre Company and Ted Swindley Theatre Workshop’s world-premiere production of The Book of Mary (It Costs a Lot to Be Real). This autobiographical one-woman show is written by and stars Houston’s own theater royalty Mary Hooper. It is directed by Swindley, founder of Houston’s STAGES Theater and author of the popular musical Always…Patsy Cline. The solo play is a celebration of Hooper’s lived experiences and a love letter to her gay mentors—and everyone’s inner diva.
“People have always said to me, ‘Hey, your life has been so interesting. You should write a book,’” Hooper says. “When the pandemic came around, I did. Not a book in terms of a print book, but as a one-woman show.” Starting with her childhood in Beaumont, The Book of Mary chronicles Hooper’s escape to Houston’s Montrose neighborhood and her adventures through Houston’s theater scene.
“I’m the fifth child of seven from two deaf parents, and I was horribly shy and had some speech problems,” admits Hooper of her early years. “But I had the good fortune to have a wonderful gay drama coach in high school, who was just the first of a long line of gay male mentors that I’ve had.” Those formative experiences are what sent her down the path to being a professional actress in Houston’s robust, vibrant theater community.
Hooper arrived in Montrose, now recognized as Houston’s “gayborhood,” in 1974. “That was right about the time that Montrose was just hopping. It was going from being the hippies to being gay,” Hooper says. “The Diana Foundation was going strong, and I started appearing in their shows. They normally only had drag queens. I was the first cisgender female to be in The Diana Awards.”
The Diana Foundation, founded in 1953, is known for focusing on, assisting, and supporting the needs of the gay community, so advocating for the community and being an ally is something Hooper takes a lot of pride in.
Now 60, Hooper reflects on her early years in Montrose and notes similarities between now and then. “Some of these political issues and some of these societal or cultural issues haven’t changed very much,” Hooper acknowledges. “It was a crime in Houston to be in drag until 1980.” Considering the current slate of anti-LGBTQ bills flooding state capitols across the nation, it’s surreal to think that something that has been legal for about 43 years could become illegal again.
“I got a lot of friends out of jail, and I got accused a couple of times of being a drag queen myself, probably because of the company I was keeping,” says Hooper. “I wanted to remember that [with The Book of Mary]. I wanted people that are my age to feel validated in their memories and their experiences, and I wanted younger people to know that we can’t stop.”
Empowered and emboldened by the confidence that doing theater gave her, Hooper was often on the front lines of the fight for LGBTQ rights in Houston. “I was friends with Gary Van Ooteghem, who was the first president of the Gay Political Caucus,” Hooper recalls. “I rode in Houston’s very first gay-pride parade, and I got a brick thrown at my head by the KKK.” That year, she was dressed like a showgirl on The Diana Foundation’s parade float. “I probably looked like a drag queen to the KKK,” she adds. “As we came to the end of our route, the City had also given the KKK a permit for a counter-demonstration. And there they were.”
Hooper also recalls when the community rallied for overtly political reasons, too. “I was there when we marched and surrounded the Hyatt hotel downtown when Anita Bryant came, and we were in the middle of all of that,” Hooper states. “A lot of us in the community consider that to be the first time that the gay community really coalesced around a political opportunity.”
She also remembers being an ally on the front lines of the AIDS epidemic. “I knew so many people. I had one year where five of my closest associates died within six months. My roommate, my voice teacher—I would go to the ward to visit people, and I would know everybody,” she says quietly. Naturally, this is an element of her life that finds its way into The Book of Mary. “I have a monologue that is dedicated to a dear friend of mine who died of HIV. When I started writing my show, I thought, ‘I want to talk about the AIDS epidemic, but I don’t want to have a show about the AIDS epidemic. A lot of that has already been written.’”
Hooper introduces the audience to her dear friend Steve O’Kane, a boss, and another gay male mentor of hers. “I wanted the audience to know what he was like when he was young, hot, and vivacious,” she explains. “I thought, ‘Let me tell just one personal story. Let me just put it on the face of one really fabulous person, and let me share his story.”
This may all sound heavy, but Hooper promises her show is a good time. “I’ll warn my future audiences, some of this is salty. I talk about drag queens, boobs, and deaf people. By no means do I mean to imply that deaf people are horrible. I love my parents. They weren’t great parents, but they had a horrible time,” she recalls. “But I also think you have to laugh about those things, as well. So bring your sense of humor!”
What: The Book of Mary at MATCH (Midtown Arts & Theater Center Houston)
When: March 24–April 16