By BRUCE DENNILL
Gross Indecency / Directed by Vanessa Cooke / PopArt, Maboneng, Johannesburg
This is a three-man cabaret – Roberts Colman and Whitehead as Rita Haywire and Lana Turna-me-ova and Tony Bentel as accompanist and sometime chirper Selma Nella – well-suited to the intimacy of a small theatre like PopArt.
Everything about these the old drag queens is loud – their wigs, their outfits and their reminisces about the script’s central event: a huge queer party held at a house in Forest Town in 1966, which was raided by the police and an event that subsequently influenced the development of a law that made it illegal for more than two men to gather in one place, as such an assembly might lead to the practicing of the sort of behaviour the prejudiced apartheid state could not condone.
The piece is earthily entertaining, with regular knowing asides to the audience, who are given a glossary of some of the words used by Rita and Lana when speaking “the Gayle”, or gay slang. The activism at the play’s heart is not overt: the feelings of those who were affected by the event are presented on one side and insight into the attitudes of the policemen who raided the house is offered on the other. The audience is left to form their own opinions about the wrong or right or wisdom or otherwise of the situation.
There is a constant melancholy about the scenario: not only because as younger men, Rita and Lana were considered so “other” that they were legislated against, but because, in a more tolerant society, they’re still regarded as curiosities and misunderstood more often than not, their eternal cheerfulness more of a façade than a heartfelt attitude.
The laughs in Gross Indecency are tinged with sadness. It’s obviously theatre, but it’s also recognisably real; entertainment for those in the know and an education for those less involved.