You know it’s going to be a good show when, upon entering the theater, a Latina drag queen offers you a rum punch and an empanada. That’s just the beginning of what proves to be an extremely satisfying evening mystery and history: Live In Theater’s The Murder of Venus Xtravaganza 1988, which is now making its world premiere at Hartley House. This interactive show is based on a real unsolved murder in New York City. Respectfully presented, The Murder of Venus Xtravaganza 1988 is not mere entertainment, but a living, breathing manifestation of the underworld on Manhattan’s West Side in the late ’80s. Rarely have I seen audiences so invested. When was the last time you saw an audience member shouting at an actor playing a suspected killer? Live In really knows how to bring you into a story and make it personal. Considering this crime really happened in New York, it seems fitting.
Venus Xtravaganza was a real transsexual woman, immortalized in Jennie Livingston’s 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning. That film captured the late-’80s New York drag ball culture, a highly competitive world of “houses” (performing groups) with “mothers” (leaders) in which performers walk a ballroom floor decked out in their best outfit tailored to a specific category (ex. “Banjee girl realness”). Venus Xtravaganza emerged is one of the most compelling subjects of the film for her stated desire to be a “spoiled, rich white girl” (Venus was pre-operation, and quite poor), but also because of her shocking murder: Her body was discovered under a hotel-room bed four days after she was strangled to death. The killer has never been found.
The play begins as a memorial service for Venus. After having our IDs checked by a very assertive cop (Derek Jordan), the audience is led up a winding set of stairs by establishment proprietor Mr. G (Jeff Foley). We land in a fourth-floor basketball court that has been transformed into a ballroom floor where mourners will pay their final respects by walking the runway for Venus. The room is populated by an array of characters: Our host for the evening Sweets Xtravaganza (J’royce Walton), her cruel stepsister Shady Xtravaganza (Sri Gordon), and of course the mother of this family of legendary children, simply named Mother (Michael Alexis Palmer).
Upon entering the space, this fierce queen handed me a knockoff Chanel handbag and a pair of shades. She’s a black Joan Crawford, repeatedly reminding her children (that’s us), “When mother asks you a question, you answer!” The gilded Chinatown fans we receive to alleviate the sweltering heat of the Indian summer turn us all into church ladies as Mother begins to preach: She wants us to find out who did this to her daughter Venus.
Mother’s friend, Assistant District Attorney Brian McKenna (Jason Vance) deputizes us, giving us the authority to question suspicious characters in the neighborhood. Suddenly, the theater expands to several blocks in Hell’s Kitchen and we set out in small groups to get to the bottom of this mystery.
Of course, the city does not stop for this play, so it is sometimes difficult to discern who is an actor and who is a regular New Yorker. Several members of my group blasted past Tony (a creepily real Themo Melikidze), a crack-addicted friend of Venus handing out cards for an underground sex club: just another tweaked-out denizen of 10th Avenue, best not look him in the eye. Fortune favors the bold, however, so if you do deign to stop and have a civil conversation with these characters, you’ll get a full picture of the world in which Venus lived. As filmmaker Jennifer Lewis (a surrogate for Livingston), Leila Bicos thrillingly and convincingly embodies the anger and attitude of a Gen-Xer activist: She’s pissed off that the government won’t invest in the West Side, leaving it to the mob and their cronies in the NYPD.
Writer and director Carlo D’Amore (who also plays a Florent-esque caterer named Pepe) has brought this gritty city to life, digging deep to expose the injustices of an era that feels as alien as Mars to residents of 2013 New York. Shady angrily shouts, “If Venus were some little white gay boy from Ronkonkoma, this would be on the news 24/7!” Indeed, when the mob runs the show, the NYPD is on their payroll and “respectable” New Yorkers don’t care, so it is easy to understand how the murder of a trans woman would happen and only a select, heavily mascaraed few would bat an eyelash.
Unfortunately, even in this era of monumental strides for gay rights, such class divides still exist within the LGBT community. Trans folk are as vulnerable to violence and discrimination as ever. That sad fact makes this tale of murder and injustice from 1988 deadly relevant, on top of being excellent theater.