Did she throw the shoe or didn’t she? Was she truly instrumental in launching the June 29, 1969 riot at the Stonewall Bar, instigating the GLTB rights movement that changed the social environment for queer people across the world? Was she even there?
History or myth, the life of transgender pioneer Sylvia Rivera is the inspiration for Sylvia So Far, a new musical-in-development offering it world premiere here at La MaMa ETC. Rivera, who succumbed to liver cancer in 2002 at the age of fifty, is credited in gay lore as, after a harsh life hustling on 42nd Street from the age of 10, resisting harassment and arrest from the New York City police department the night in question, beginning a group action that began when Rivera, finding nothing to throw at police demanding the evacuation of the club, removed her shoe and sent it flying at a nearby cop. The crowd followed suit, upturning parking meters, trash cans, and trapping authorities inside the bar. Two more nights of riots followed before peace was restored. The act prompted GLTB organizations to strategize and begin a political effort that is still vital.
The musical is written by Timothy Mathis, a member of the legendary (and recently Tony-honored) Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop. Mathis is an acclaimed songwriter and the author of the musicals The Conjuring and Our Story Too. His short musical, Wallflowers, premiered at The Club at La MaMa ETC in 2002. A rising songwriter on the cabaret scene, Mathis’ numbers are frequently performed by the genre’s artists. His popular number, “The Man Reading Kafka On The Train”, is prominently featured in Sylvia So Far. Mathis is the recipient of the BMI Jerry Harrington Award for Outstanding Creative Achievement in Musical Theatre.
Sylvia Rivera (1951-2002), one of the most celebrated and reviled transgender pioneers of the GLTB movement, ran away to the streets at the ago ten, supporting herself as a prostitute and petty thief. She was seventeen at the time of the Stonewall riots, an event that launched her into a lifetime of political action. Her defining moment came with the creation, along with cohort Marsha P. Johnson, of STAR House, a home designed to take GLTB kids off the streets, offering them an alternative from the hooking and drug abuse prevalent in the culture. After her participation at Stonewall, she was forced out of the movement, eventually banned from the Gay And Lesbian Center for her guerilla tactics in dealing with organizations and politicians. Eventual association with Metropolitan Community Church of New York led to the community’s reexamination of her role in gay politics, and she ended her life with a restored reputation. In 2000 she was chosen to represent the United States at the Gay Millenium Celebration in Rome. Her memorial service in 2002 was broadcast live on radio, covered by all the print media and two television stations. Hours before her death, she conducted a meeting from her hospital bed about transgender inclusion in the then-pending SONDA legislation.
Lori Lane Jefferson, Peter Proctor, and Bianca Leigh
Starring as transgender goddess Rivera is Bianca Leigh. Miss Leigh was featured this time last year as Mary Ellen in Duncan Tucker’s groundbreaking film TransAmerica. In her eclectic career, Miss Leigh has appeared in shows as varied as The Seagull (Arkadina), Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, The Vagina Monologues and Twelfth Night (Olivia) and previously at La MaMa ETC as Binky in Christmas In The Islands. As a popular club performer, she has taken her act to Bar d’Or, The Duplex, Judy’s Place, and Don’t Tell Mama, as well as The Stonewall Bar which features so prominenlt in Sylvia So Far. Other films include Cracked and Woody Allen’s Celebrity.
Rivera’s mentor, sidekick, and inspiration, Marsha P. Johnston, will be played by Peter Proctor in his New York theatre debut. Proctor has starred nationally in productions of Dreamgirls, Evita, and Little Shop of Horrors. As Johnson, whose unsolved murder in 1992 was officially proclaimed a suicide by the city, Proctor will lead the cast in the rambunctious “Pay It No Mind”, a song taken directly from the diva herself. When quizzed about the meaning of the P in the middle of her name, Johnston’s stock reply was “It means pay it no mind, honey. Don’t pay it no mind.” Proctor’s recent CD, “SayYou Love Me”, features Timothy Mathis’ ballad “My First Mistake”.
Gavin Esham plays Rivera’s friend and confidante, Teddy. Currently featured au flagrant in the off-Broadway hit Naked Boys Singing, Esham has toured internationally in Cats, Beauty and the Beast (Lumiere), and in the title role of Jesus Christ Superstar. He performed the starring role of Joe in Wallflowers both at TADA! and The Kirk Theatre Off Broadway. This summer he recreated role as part of SNIP! Short Musicals by Timothy Mathis.
Reed Prescott appeared this fall in the title role of the outrageous cult-hit Oedipus For Kids. Additionally in 2006, he appeared in Kiss or Cry at Theatre 1010, at the New Amsterdam Theatre in the BC/EFA Easter Bonnet Celebration, and as Sammy in “Sammy And Delia: A Hair Story”, part of SNIP! Short Musicals by Timothy Mathis. In Sylvia So Far he plays a variety of roles under the banner All The Handsome Men.
Neighborhood Playhouse veteran Lori Lane Jefferson appears as All The Tough Broads, appearing in several roles including Vonda Hamlin, a fictionalized conglomerate of gay organizers who successfully ostracized Rivera from the movement, fearing a “crazy drag queen” was a detriment to the cause. Jefferson received acclaim for her creation of the role of Athena in David Johnston’s reworking of The Eumenides. She recently appeared in Caryl Churchill’s Iraq.. at the The Ohio Theatre.
Rebecca Soler is a much-sought voice artist, starring in four animated childrens’ series currently running including Magical Girls Do Re Mi. She toured Europe as The Mistress in a smash restaging of Harold Prince’s Evita and stars as Kakie, the searcher in Timothy Mathis’s upcoming fairy tale of a musical, The Conjuring. In Sylvia she plays All the Street Trash including Meems, a homeless lesbian Rivera takes under wing.