Roger Q. Mason, Alex Esola & Pete Ploszek in ‘Lavender Men’ (Photo: Jenny Graham)
by Joey Sims
Equal parts stirring, humane, and heart-wrenching, Roger Q. Mason’s superb new play Lavender Men is receiving its world premiere staging at Skylight Theatre in Los Angeles through September 4. Happily for non-Angeleno audiences (including this critic), this powerful production is also available to stream online throughout its run.
The play’s hook is simple. Lavender Men imagines a years-long, passionate love affair between Abraham Lincoln (Pete Ploszek) and Elmer E. Ellsworth (Alex Esola), a law clerk who trained under Lincoln and would later become the first casualty of the Civil War. Lincoln’s sexuality has, of course, been a frequent object of speculation. Mason’s play imagines a swaggering young Abe who, underneath the facade, is torn between presidential ambition and desires he can’t speak aloud.
Yet this isn’t really a play about a gay Lincoln. Mason uses that as a springboard for an empathetic exploration of the many sidelined figures in history. Abe’s loved-starved wife Mary Todd Lincoln is, here, not just a melancholy figure (though she is that), but also a powerful political operator. One of Lincoln’s Black office maids speaks bluntly to Abe about truths he prefers to avoid.
Both characters are played by Mason–in fact, Mason takes on all the roles except for Abe and Elmer. That includes the story’s guide, Taffeta, a fabulous queer spirit who has conjured the play’s strange liminal space, a sort of afterlife in which she encourages Abe and Elmer to relive key moments of their relationship.
Even in scenes where the contemporary lens on history feels familiar, Mason’s act of placing themselves–a self-described “plus-sized, gender non-conforming queer artist of color”–into the picture gives the play an invigorating freshness. You’ve heard some of these ideas before, but you’ve never seen them expressed like this.
Taffeta’s journey is a little muddier than Abe and Elmer’s. When the two lash out at her with jibes and insults (typical of their time, and still familiar today), she becomes discouraged and briefly loses faith in herself. This doesn’t quite ring true–Mason is such a commanding presence, and Taffeta such a powerful force, that it’s hard to believe such lazy bigotries would hit her so deeply. Elmer’s journey is also unclear, and Esola is sometimes stilted in the role; Ploszek, however, is charismatic and heartbreaking as young Abe.
Mason lets the pair occasionally step out of history and recall their regrets. Abe and Elmer even share a passionate love scene, choreographed like a dance in Lovell Holder’s simple, expressive staging. Though the actors are mostly clothed throughout the sequence, it is intensely sexy, one of the most erotic theatrical moments in recent memory.
Did it really happen? Or are the two satisfying desires suppressed in life, but here, in this liminal space conjured by Taffida, briefly and beautifully possible? Either way, this tender work gives moving life to an impossible queer love story.
Running now through September 4 at Skylight Theatre, Los Angeles
Live/streaming tickets available here