American Stage presents Everett Quinton’s drag-filled, one-man adaptation of A Tale of Two Cities

By : Jeremy Williams
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“It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.”

The line that opens one of Charles Dickens’ most famous pieces of literature is known by almost everyone, even those who cannot name the story that follows. It is this line that led Everett Quinton to adapt Charles Dickens’ novel A Tale of Two Cities into a play in 1989 about an aspiring drag queen during the AIDS crisis in the 1980s.

“This version of A Tale of Two Cities was written by Quinton in the late ‘80s as a one man show to try and save his theater,” director Janis Stevens says. “He knew he couldn’t afford a full cast; I doubt he even paid himself.”

Quinton’s A Tale of Two Cities takes place in a small, rundown flat in lower Manhattan. The lead, and only, character in the play is Jerry, who is getting ready for his first night on stage at Sally’s as a female impersonator.

“As he is getting ready, there is banging at the door, and when he answers the door, there is a baby that’s been left on the doorstep,” Stevens says. “He brings the baby inside and it’s crying and the only thing that will shut that baby up is ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…’ and the baby starts to quiet down.”

Jerry then goes through the story of A Tale of Two Cities to keep the baby quiet so he can get ready for his big night.

Quinton’s A Tale of Two Cities was performed 20 years ago at the American Stage in St. Petersburg and starred Mark Chambers. After two decades, he is returning to the role of Jerry.

“Jerry is quite an animated character,” Chambers says. “He is excited to have his first time on the stage as a drag performer, and he goes on last so he knows it has to be big.”

While much of the show is funny and zany, Stevens says that there is an undercurrent of deeper meaning behind the play.

“So the reign of terror going on in France that Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities addresses is an analogy to the reign of terror that AIDS was had over the gay community at the time,” Stevens says.

Quinton wrote his version of A Tale of Two Cities with attention paid to groups of gay people who were oppressed even within the LGBT community.

“This is a template that can be placed on a lot of stories, but Quinton felt a connection to A Tale of Two Cities and felt that it was the best template to be able to tell his story,” Stevens says. “It was a book [Quinton] knew well, and it had come to represent the oppression of gay society in American culture. That oppression probably led to the situations that allowed the community to fall victim to disease. This seemed a lot like the oppression of the poor by the rich aristocrats in France leading up to the storming of the Bastille [in Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities].

Chambers was originally drawn to the role of Jerry because of the layering of different stories within one play. Now playing Jerry 20 years later, he thinks Quinton’s A Tale of Two Cities more relevant and important than ever.

“There is so much going on today with current politics and the separations of classes and wealth,” Chambers says. “There aren’t only similarities between now and the ‘80s, but from now to Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.”

A part of gay culture that is a big part of Quinton’s revisionism is the subculture of drag.

“Because this story is in the ‘80s, this isn’t like a RuPaul’s Drag Race,” Chambers says. “Drag has become so sophisticated and they are encouraging it earlier and earlier and everybody does it, but in the ‘80s, you would get sideways glances if your eyebrows were gone because you have been doing drag. It was still not socially acceptable then.”

Chambers remembers that until the AIDS crisis was really addressed through fundraising, drag queens were seen as second class citizens by the LGBT community.

“No fats, no fems, no S&Ms, no drag queens ever,” Chambers says. “Until they started raising money and became a political tool,that’s when they started to get a little more respect. Now if you go to any kind of benefit, there will be a drag show or a drag performer hosting.”

While the play deals with many heavy subjects including oppression, abandonment and disease, Stevens says the show is also filled with moments of happiness, humor and flavor.

“I think the song at the end of the show is the right flavor,” Stevens says. “It’s very grand and Mark [Chambers] is very grand with this number. It’s just perfect and I think people are going to enjoy it.”

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