THEATER José Sarria is many things: performer, activist, trailblazer, legend, Latino, diva, tenor … So just how many José Sarrias are there? In the latest meta-theatrical reclamation-and-floorshow from playwright-director John Fisher (Medea: The Musical, Combat; Ishi: The Last of the Yahi) you’ll meet several but get no strict count. That’s part of the point and much of the charm in SexRev: The José Sarria Experience, a production of Theatre Rhinoceros, currently ensconced in residency at queer performance incubator Mama Calizo’s Voice Factory.
First, there’s the Sarria of memory, in the mind of our ingenuous, ebullient narrator (Donald Currie), a gay man in middle age reminiscing about his precocious sexual awakening via “the Nightingale of Montgomery Street” in a certain storied postwar/Beat-era bar known as the Black Cat Café. At one point in this fourth-wall–smashing show, staged in the round as the invitingly sleazy Black Cat itself, audience members are invited to share their own first-hand impressions of the pioneering San Francisco drag performer and gay rights activist.
Then there are the Sarrias we meet on stage, played to the hilt by Tom Orr and Michael Vega. Each actor is responsible for an aspect of the Sarria “experience,” but in the insouciant critical consciousness of Fisher’s play, that doesn’t necessarily mean it will go unchallenged. “But José Sarria was brown!” shouts a “heckler” at Orr. “You’re not brown.” The contradiction and ensuing kerfuffle provide Fisher and the audience one way into the continuing political relevance and volatility of his subject matter, of course, and some productive laughs come out of it too. Add to this the real possibility of the “real” José Sarria showing up in the audience one night, and you get a sense of the tangled politics of art, and art of politics.
Frenetically staged, often very funny, endlessly self-referential, and indeed — as one character doesn’t hesitate to complain — a bit long, “SexRev” moves fitfully back and forth across the last several decades of San Francisco queer life and politics. But as a history lesson, a widening of horizons, and a spur to political vigilance on behalf of freedom for everyone, it’s a hell of a lively night out.