Sweet Potato Queens

The second show in our 32nd season, Sweet Potato Queens, is a musical I had never heard of -- and there aren't a ton of those out there! 

One of our loyal New Line Subscribers, Debra Lueckerath, had seen the show in Metairie, Louisiana, and she brought me the program, adamantly urging me to check it out. I looked at the program cover, saw the show's title; and I confess I thought to myself, "Ugh. Chick show."

For a while, the program just sat on my desk, like most things do. But at some point, I picked it up, looked through it, then on a whim I Googled "Sweet Potato Queens" and holy shit!

I found the official SPQ website and discovered the amazingly funny and insightful Jill Conner Browne. The more I read about her and the Queens, the more I listened to and watched clips, I more I realized that this quirky musical was really crazy, really heartfelt, and really New Liney. Just like Jill, the Boss Queen.

Once again, the Others will take centerstage at New Line. I love that.

So I got the script to read and the piano score to play through, and it charmed the shit out of me and made me laugh out loud repeatedly, and yet it also has some very serious, human stuff running underneath the wacky carnival. That's my kind of theatre!

The show's creative team's cred is solid. Broadway veteran Rupert Holmes (The Mystery of Edwin Drood) wrote the script, and hit country songwriter Sharon Vaughn wrote the lyrics. The terrific music is by pop icon Melissa Manchester, and the songs are really fun to play. It's Southern Rock, dirty blues, gospel, country, funk, soul, swing, and something hilariously called "Sears Rock." You can imagine what a blast it all is! We started rehearsals this past week, and we've got such a strong, interesting cast! Our music director Tim Amukele is teaching the actors their songs, while I soak it all in and prepare to stage it all.

One of the great jokes of the show for me is its title. It sounds so small-town, so innocuous, so inconsequential, all in stark, hilarious contrast to the actual Queens themselves and their high-octane philosophy of life.

Now that our work on the show has begun, and I'm almost finished with Jill's first book, The Sweet Potato Queens' Book of Love: A Fallen Southern Belle's Look at Love, Life, Men, Marriage, and Being Prepared, I begin to understand the SPQs on a deeper level.

These women have taken every traditional, cliched, superficial, social expectation and exploded it. Men can't help but obsess over tits and ass? Fine, the Queens will give them tits and ass so gigantic they're frightening. Men think long hair equals femininity? Fine, the Queens will give them a royal fuck-ton of hair. Men forever sexualize women? Fine, the Queens will give them a sexuality so aggressive, it will make them run away crying.

It's empowering because the women are choosing to be the "object" of our gaze; it's an active role, not a passive one. And because it's so aggressive, it both gives the men what they want and it terrorizes (and mocks) them with the same.

On the surface, it's just good ol', (not exactly) clean fun. And Lordy, it is FUNNY. But it's so much more than that. These women have claimed all the oppressive feminine stereotypes in our culture as their own. All of them. They expose these stereotypes as silly, ridiculous, even grotesque. And at the same time, this satiric exaggeration of the female body also subtly (!) forces men (and women) to accept female bodies as curvy, and women themselves as sexual.

What's most clear to me now about the Wonderful World of SPQs is that no 24-year-old could have created this world. This had to come from women who'd Been Through it All, who tried to meet all those expectations before discovering it's a game they can't win.

(Like the Scarecrow sings in The Wiz, "You can't win, you can't break even, but you can't get out of the game." Which also happens to be The Zeroth Law of Thermodynamics, I shit you not.)

So what can you do when the game is rigged? The Sweet Potato Queens simply changed all the rules. Fuck "ladylike"!

The outrageousness, the aggressiveness, the explicitness, the metaphors of royalty and rank, the brilliant audaciousness of it all (dare I call it a mythology?), disguises the serious point of the SPQs -- a vigorous demand for respect and self-determination. All the craziness is the Spoonful of Sugar that Helps the Medicine Go Down.

But the costumes and the Queens' wacky escapades aren't an escape from the real world; they are armor against it. As Jill admits in her first book, what the Sweet Potato Queens do is not all that distant from what drag queens do, for different but arguably parallel reasons.

Though the SPQs were founded decades ago, their philosophy seems more topical than ever right now, as the Culture Wars rage ever onward, as women's autonomy is repeatedly put up for a vote.

The Queens are a wonderfully sly and subversive mashup of feminine clich├ęs and the Alpha male, and we know how much America loves thinking about gender these days. The Queens may not know it, but they are Exhibit A in the argument that gender is entirely a social construct -- and an oppressive one. By adopting all the artificial social markers of femininity and making them even more artificial, the SPQs are putting that construct under a metaphorical microscope and gleefully tearing its little wings off.

Again, that's my kind of musical theatre!

Even with the show's considerable (and delicious) snark, and even though there are very serious moments, Sweet Potato Queens is chock full of pure joy and amazing songs. It's an open invitation to all of us to stop taking the bullshit, learn to Live Out Loud, and to each find our own particular path. Jill always reminds us to Be Particular! We need that lesson right now as much as ever.

This is going to be such a fun -- and healing -- ride! For more info, click here.

Long Live the Musical!
Scott

P.S. To buy Sweet Potato Queens tickets, click here

P.P.S. To check out my newest musical theatre books, click here.

P.P.P.S. To donate to New Line Theatre, click here

1 comments:

Anonymous | January 14, 2024 at 7:57 PM

WOW & THANK YOU! Thank you for GETTING IT & doing OUR SHOW! I and Queen George & Spud Stud Scott WILL BE THERE WITH YOU the weekend of MARCH 9 & WE CANNOT WAIT!