It’s true. You’ve come to see a spoof of the movie Gidget—one that draws heavily on Three Faces of Eve, Spellbound, sixties surfer culture, and more. But this play also gives us a chance to shake things up, enjoy oddly combined existentialist references, and revel in the spirit of happy cross-dressing. It may come as a surprise to you, but dear old Wake Forest has enjoyed drag performance since 1836. In Wake’s first theatre production on the all-male old campus, a man in a dress played a maiden in distress. I think you’ll find Psycho Beach Party quite a different take on drag, but it’s rooted in a tradition that goes back, not just to our school’s origins, but to the Golden Age of Greece about 2500 years ago.
Drag has also been the subject of intense academic scrutiny in recent years—revealing, among other things, how stereotypes emerge far more readily than complexities when we play someone who we perceive as fundamentally different from ourselves. This can be problematic if the stereotype is simply accepted, but, seen another way, revealing stereotypes is the first step in understanding how absurd they are and how much we may limit ourselves (and others) in a desire to contain and therefore control. As Psycho Beach Party suggests, it also shows how much behavior is rooted in a desire to conform, rather than coming to know and honor our own authentic needs.
As a little girl, I was never much for baby dolls and playing house. I like digging in the mud, playing sports, and climbing trees. In fact, I still do. But I also like lipstick and romantic movies and all kinds of hair and bath products. You can find me with a hammer in my hand one minute and baking cookies the next—and most of you probably don’t find that strange. My guess is that people like me are far more prevalent than those who subscribe to a purely masculine or feminine identity. Ask yourself, is there ANY combination of “typical” gender behaviors (both masculine and feminine) that fits you? I daresay, if you probe deeply enough, there is—and if there’s not, I’m sorry, because you’re missing a lot. I figure, why worry about transgressing what’s “normal and natural” to one’s gender? After all, if such behavior were natural, it would come, well, naturally, wouldn’t it?
I’ve come to one conclusion: basing my identity as a woman on a fantasy of someone else’s making seems a pretty sure way to mental illness. And in some ways that’s what Psycho Beach Party is all about. Sure, it’s a lighthearted spoof of 1960s beach movies and teen-exploitation films. At its heart, though, it has less to do with Frankie Avalon than with our yearning to be full people—on our own terms—revealing, as our play says, “the many aspects of [our] kaleidoscopic persona[s].”
Maybe I love Psycho Beach Party because it suggests that we’re all more than our surfaces might reveal, more than even we allow ourselves to be. And that gives me hope and courage. Why be afraid of who we are or could be, of admitting what and who we love? Why not accept ourselves and each other? Let’s laugh, limbo, let go, and see where it all takes us. At least for tonight, it’s just a party.