By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
It’s been half a century, amazingly, since a spontaneous, and violent, demonstration in a dive bar in New York’s Greenwich Village that would prove to be a galvanizing event in the history of the American gay rights movement.
Just before the Stonewall Riots in 1969, though, something significant happened across the border in America’s less flashy, apparently more passive neighbour to the north. A young and charismatic federal justice minister, with a gift for the epigrammatic, was arguing “there is no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation.” Against fierce resistance, Pierre Elliot Trudeau championed a bill that decriminalized homosexuality in Canada. Royal assent for that bill pre-dated Stonewall by one day.
The 50th anniversary of that pivotal moment in our history has inspired the play that gets its world premiere Thursday on the Theatre Network stage. Darrin Hagen’s The Empress & the Prime Minister tells a story, that despite the fame of one of the title players, is little known. It’s about the life and career of the drag queen/gay activist whose unstoppable letter-writing campaign caught the eye of the young federal justice minister who’d become the prime minister.
That drag queen/activist is the late ted northe, aka the “Empress of Canada.” Last week in the Theatre Network green room, another drag queen/activist — “The Edmonton Queen” as his memoir moniker has it — was groaning loudly as he squeezed a foot into a size 16 T-strap pump. With a matronly moderate high heel. There was a time, as playwright/actor Hagen sighs (comically), when his heel choice was the stiletto. His co-star Vancouver-based Joey Lespérance, a perfectly bilingual francophone actor with a certain unmistakeable resemblance to Trudeau, looks on, amused, and rolls his eyes.
If ted northe isn’t a name in your radar, you’re not alone (as I can testify). Lespérance, who arrives in Edmonton from a production of Michel Tremblay’s Hosanna (directed by a former Theatre Network artistic director, Stephen Heatley), lives in Vancouver’s West End — right around the corner from ted northe Lane. “And I had no idea who he was!”
It started, says Hagen of his new play, “as one of those drag footnotes in history; you know how I love them, they’re the centre of every story I write.”
northe, who’d invented the elaborate “court system” attached to the drag queen aristocracy, had come to Edmonton once, to the “international court conference” and ball, held here in 1988. “I remember the dress,” says Hagen. “I remember what he sang, kind of a weird choice but it worked: Queen of the Silver Dollar by Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show.. And then I forgot about it.” He laughs. “You know, queens, full of ourselves, the world ends at the edge of our makeup mirrors….”
In 2013, their paths crossed again when Hagen was being inducted into the Q Hall of Fame. Northe’s keynote address was a barn-burner. “It was so moving,” says Hagen “He talked about being an activist in the 1950s: can you imagine, in that decade?. He talked about standing in front of the Vancouver courthouse in 1958 in full drag, and getting arrested, and how that was the beginning of his career as an activist. How he started a grassroots letter-writing campaign.” And he talked about how his connection with Pierre Trudeau began, and continued.
“It was a really emotional speech. And I knew I had to do it as a play,”
Hagen set about arranging an interview with the Empress of Canada. northe died before that could happen. Instead, Hagen acquired three or four hours of videotaped interviews from one of the activist’s close friends. “A lot of the monologues in the play are ted’s own words.”
The Empress & the Prime Minister was “a very different” play when Hagen began, he says. “My original plan was to have Pierre and ted on opposite sides of the stage, each telling their own version of the story.… I started to gather Pierre Trudeau quotes, and then I realized how much had been written about the great man — and that what I had to bring to this story was this little piece of him that no one knew about.”
“I started to write scenes for them, dialogue. And that’s when I really started to have fun…. I knew they had many in-person meetings. And I imagined what they would have said to each other.”
Hagen, who grew up in Rocky Mountain House “listening to my mom and dad, well, everyone really, bitching about ‘That Trudeau!’,” knew he’d need a francophone actor. “I wanted Trudeau to be onstage in two languages. Because that’s how I grew up with him, in a bilingual country: I’m hearing him talk in English, and when he moves into French, there’s a woman translating…. There’s always another voice. That’s the Trudeau in my head.”
Director Bradley Moss suggested Lespérance, who’d shared the stage with him 30 years ago in the latter’s first professional gig. Hagen had met Lespérance too, during a run of Cowboy Poetry at L’UniThéâtre when Hagen arrived as an interviewer, for Access TV’s Culture Quest.
Lespérance plays multiple characters, including a Catholic Monsignor and (a first for him) a couple of drag roles. Originally from Montreal, he points to the resistance from Quebec when Trudeau began to push for legalizing homosexuality. “He was a bachelor, he dressed well, he pushed for gay rights, (ergo) he must be gay….”
And of course, the legislation of 1969 didn’t magically transform the attitudes engrained in the culture, as Lespérance points out. It didn’t eradicate “the attitude that homosexuality was wrong; it just made it more complicated to pursue. All it did was make gay sex at home with your partner legal…. Harassing the queer community continued.”
“So it wasn’t the whole package deal from day 1. But it was the beginning of something! Something really important for the liberation of queer, when a major political figure started speaking for it.”
What the bill did change was the definition of gross indecency, Hagen says. His 2016 play The Witch Hunt at the Strand, which premiered at Workshop West, details a shameful chapter in Edmonton history in which the charge of gross indecency had proven useful to city police and the RCMP in their sting operation against closeted gay men.
“I finally realized ted northe’s impact on my life, this man I had met once, who was putting everything on the line in the ‘50s,” says Hagen. “As a queer man,” says his stage cohort, “it touches me directly, to be able to use my skills for something that’s touched me all my life.”
Another election, another source of anxiety. The world seems to be spinning backwards, as Hagen and Lespérance reflect. “When I got off the stage in The Witch Hunt At The Strand in 2016, Trump was president,” says Hagen. “When I get off the stage in this play….”
“The work is not done,” says Lespérance. “As artists we have a platform….”
The Empress & the Prime Minister
Theatre: Theatre Network at the Roxy
Written by: Darrin Hagen
Directed by: Bradley Moss
Starring: Darrin Hagen, Joey Lespérance
Where: The Roxy on Gateway, 8529 Gateway Blvd.
Running: Thursday through May 5
Tickets: 780-453-2440, theatrenetwork.ca