On a chilly early spring New York night, I entered the set of The View UpStairs. I attended the play with a good friend. Immediately it felt as if we stepped into a bar and, considering it was happy hour timing, I felt a familiarity. The tacky dive bar set could have very well been any Hell’s Kitchen after work watering hole, so I knew I was in for a great experience.
The View UpStairs opens up in 2017 and follows the journey of a young black gay male named Wes (Jeremy Pope). Pope plays Wes, a high maintenance New Yorker in the fashion scene. Wes ends up purchasing a rundown abandoned bar in New Orleans. At this point Wes knows little of its history, but after taking a bump of coke, he’s transported to 1973 and shocked by the lively bar patrons of the time.
Many of the bar patrons are LGBTQ people of color. The bartender Henri (Frenchie Davis) is a powerful black lesbian that runs the establishment. There’s the fun, energetic and flamboyant African American Willie (Nathan Lee Graham). There’s Latinx characters such as Freddy (Michael Longoria), an aspiring drag queen who serves splendid dance numbers for the patrons. Freddy’s mother Inez (Nancy Ticotin), traveled from Puerto Rico to settle in New Orleans only to be disappointed by the realities that their new home offers such as discrimination and lower wages. She embraces her son’s dreams and graciously places lipstick on Freddy as he prepares for his dance number.
The cast felt familiar, just like the dive bar set, and that’s what made their performances so enjoyable. These are the people you share a drink with after work, the people you gripe with when trouble enters your life. They know your name, and the bartenders know your drinking. There’s a sense of community.
The play draws contrasts to the gay scene of 1973 and the present day. Back then there were no gay dating apps where people could find other guys from home. There were no cruising lines in bathroom stalls or heavily themed bars with gay-for-pay shirtless bartenders. UpStairs was an authentic watering hole that filled the demand of LGBTQ patrons to find each other in a hostile American South.
It was their paradise and oasis. People went there because that was where they could be their true selves. It’s important to note this was a decade before the AIDS crisis decimated an entire generation of the gay community. Thus, the interactions between characters was more carefree. The community at UpStairs taps into a kind of unknowing innocence. Regardless of fact that the patrons aren’t of money, power, or influence, in each other they find comfort, a kind of luxury in community and family.
Wes meets the handsome Patrick (Taylor Frey) and they connect and fall in love at the bar. Their differences are glued by Patrick challenging Wes to be true to himself. The interracial gay relationship is beautifully portrayed through open discussion and understanding each other’s differences.
But this young love turns to timeless tragedy in the final act of the play. As can happen in any bar on any weekend, a disgruntled patron is thrown out. They return only to set fire to UpStairs, with the patrons trapped by smoke and flames, and one by one our beloved characters are killed by the inferno.
It was this act where I couldn’t help but feel a knot in my stomach. The stage is transformed with dramatic orange lights, horror music, and a sense of panic. One by one the cast members march into the bright white light of the ever-after. Wes is transported back to 2017, where he is haunted by what happened. His safe space, his community, and his paradise were gone. One by one the cast members march into a bright light. The UpStairs tragedy was barely covered by local media. Some locals were quoted that they were happy the cesspool was gone. This averted gaze and hate resonates.
This was Pulse, in Orlando. The Freddi’s, Henri’s, Willie’s, Inez’, gone.
Wes gives a beautiful monologue and is convinced that despite gay marriage, technological advances, and gay themed TV shows, actual progress is marginal at best. “Look at our new president,” he asks. Look how easy it was for the media to forget about the carnage in Orlando. A cop (Richard E. Waits) arrives to find a well-dressed Wes in the abandoned establishment. A frantic Wes is scared and concerned. The Black male officer gives this advice to Wes, that even though he’s Black and gay in America, his life is valuable. His life matters.
As the one year anniversary of The Pulse massacre approaches, this play is a must see. It is history, our history, and shows us what it’s like when headlines and numbers are chipped away to the humanity underneath. As Queer People of Color, the parallels between the tragedies at Pulse and UpStairs instruct us to remember these beautiful lives, to remember the comfort of people like us who wanted nothing more than to enjoy their safe spaces around those who treated us like family, and enjoy them in peace.
Photos courtesy, Kurt Sneddon, on Instagram @bykurtsneddon and Facebook.com/bykurtsneddon
EFNIKS.com was given the opportunity to catch up with Jeremy Pope for an in-depth interview on his role, the play, and its significance to the LGBTQ story.
EFNIKS: Wes is one of the main characters. When you heard about the role, what made you want to join the production for The View UpStairs? Do you relate to the character?
JEREMY: I auditioned for the character Wes end of the year 2016. I was reading the script and doing research, as I had no idea about the UpStairs Lounge and the fire that took place in 1973. I am originally from Orlando, Florida and happened to be on vacation visiting family on the night of the Pulse attack. The people lost were friends of friends, people I went to highschool with, people I knew. This tragic event truly hit close to home. I felt if given the opportunity, this project was the least I could do to give back to the community.
EFNIKS: Wes towards the end of the play gives an emotional speech about the state of America in 2017. He mentions that as a society we already moved on from the Orlando massacre. In your words, how do you feel about the state America when it comes to LGBTQ issues in 2017?
JEREMY: We are seeing and hearing new and unique things everyday with the man we have in office. It’s scary and most always beyond words. But as said in the play, after Wes has this speech about where we are today. He is told, this isn’t the first time things seemed unfair and out of order. Forty years ago, the color of your skin was enough to have you living in darkness and fear. But did people just throw in the towel and say we’re screwed? Nah. (Rosa Parks) So many before us paved the way and fought and marched and preached and protested and stayed persistent. And that’s the key. WE CAN’T GIVE UP. The fight for equality. The fight for love. The fight for America to hear ALL VOICES. Sitting and complaining isn’t going to move any mountains. So the question is, what are you gonna do about it?
EFNIKS: What’s the one piece of advice you would want someone to take away from this production?
JEREMY: Although we are discussing the tragic event in New Orleans, the story is about a beautiful community of people who didn’t have much, yet had it all. They were a family. They had laughter, happiness, and one hell of life worth living amongst the craziness of the world at that time. Let’s not forget our history. Let’s be creators of communities filled with love and happiness. I promise it only heals and makes the world a better place.
EFNIKS: What’s your go-to artist to listen to whenever you feel down or need to feel empowered?
JEREMY: John Legend, Solange, Sara Bareilles. They all hit for me.
EFNIKS: Do you remember the first time you went to a gay bar? What was that experience like?
JEREMY: First gay bar?? On accident with a group of friends early college. We just wanted to dance in the city and weren't 21 yet. It was Thursday night and apparently every third Thursday was gay night. And they were full out, no marking!! It was a good time and boy did we dance. Music was definitely on point!
EFNIKS: EFNIKS.com is a new website launching to support LGBTQ people of color. What advice would you have to our audience who are in the community that may feel concerned about the current climate?
JEREMY: Don’t be afraid to get involved. Use your voice. I know us Millennials are living in a world of checking the Instagram every four minutes, but find support groups, organizations, charities, shelters, rallies, groups of people who are seeking change for the community. I was brought up knowing that things begin to change when simply two or more are gathered together. Let’s not lose hope.
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