In the theater world, Tarell Alvin McCraney is a unique position where he has the recognition and celebrity to do whatever he wants. After winning a MacArthur fellowship in 2013, he collaborated with Barry Jenkins on the film Moonlight, which won him an Oscar. Rather than work a new film or play, McCraney chose to update Wig Out, his 2008 play about competing houses in the drag ball scene. According to a now-deleted Instagram post, he was in D.C. a couple weeks ago to see the updated version at The Studio’s new production. This rehash may seem like a regression, yet Wig Out represents an evolution in the themes that define McCraney’s career. Besides, after the tense drama of Moonlight, the commanding drag performances of Wig Out must seem all the more liberating.
Theater is already an artificial medium, with the audience forced to imagine all sorts of settings within the limits of the stage, but McCraney’s words heightens that artificiality further. The first thing you notice in his plays is that he writes stage direction into the dialogue. In the wildly successful plays Marcus and In the Red and Brown Water, as well as Wig Out, characters offer commentary on their entrances and exits. They may say something like, “Enter Eric, with a look of mischief,” or describe the meaning behind a languid glance.
At first, this decision is distracting since it deliberately breaks the fourth wall. The deeper purpose, however, is a need for constraints that can be broken. Although his work could not be more different, filmmaker Wes Anderson and McCraney both see how rigid world-building can lead to a deeper emotional payoff. When characters stop building defenses and say what they really feel, like at the end of Wig Out, the depth of emotion is more acutely felt.
Flourishes in dialogue notwithstanding, the major theme of McCraney’s work is how identity, sexuality, and family interact. That idea is entrenched in Moonlight, as a young man yearns for acceptance, only to become so distant that he abandons all hope of intimacy. While Moonlight is a stark film, both in terms of storytelling and character development, Wig Out makes the cocktail of family/sexuality all the more explicit – in more ways than one. The play includes explicit on-stage sex scenes, all among men, and act one ends with sex that’s coerced. McCraney is provocative, forcing the audience into discomfort, since fluid identities and communities means that anyone can change their mind, or be compromised. There is a sense of liberation in Wig Out, unlike Moonlight, but that liberation comes with consequences.
Director Kent Gash, who also directed the Studio’s 2015 production of Choir Boy, chose a smaller, intimate space to recreate the feeling of being at an actual drag show. The production has four sets of doors, creating multiple runways where the drag queens can strut their stuff: there are heightened, gorgeous send-ups of everyone from Beyoncé to a Kabuki sorceress. Wig Out suggests that every great drag house has ceremonial “mother” and “father” roles, with characters fighting like a lived-in family, instead of a traditional group of performers. These bonds are tighter than family, at least in McCraney’s world, because they are forged among the ostracized. The drag performers cannot change who they are, but they can chose with whom they build their trust.
Aside from evolving senses of community, predominantly among black men, the updated Wig Out is McCraney at his most flat-out fun. There are long drag sequences, including a dizzyingly choreographed nightmare sequence, and they unearth the full potential of drag. The two feuding drag houses, Light and Diabolique, are seductive in opposite ways. One performer covers “I Want My Innocence Back,” simulating cannibalism along the way, while another finds a cautious sense of hope through tracks from Solange’s A Seat at the Table. Some jokes will always stick – the insult “clip-on accent” is so devastating, I’m surprised I never heard it before – yet drag shows must draw from both the present and past. The new Wig Out suggests that McCraney can and should update the play every few years.
A strain of hope informs McCraney’s work. Hope is represented through connections, whether they are temporary or permanent. Moonlight and Wig Out both have scenes one where one man cooks for another; the back and forth conversation about the food is more important than the flavors themselves. Choir Boy and Moonlight add tenderness and fear to the equation, since they both feature scenes with adolescents exploring their sexuality. Like the best artists, McCraney keeps revisiting what matters most to him. It is borderline compulsive, forcing us to emphasize with young, vulnerable black men over and over again. We do not have the same journey as McCraney characters, but we sometimes feel just as helpless or treasured.