You can learn a lot from a man dressed as a woman. Mae West, who rose to fame as a film actress in the 1930s, created her persona by imitating the over-the-top sexuality, regal bearing and double-entendre-laden wit of drag queens. Or at least that's what her character does in the play Dirty Blonde.
"There's a wonderful scene that shows drag performers writing a script with her," says Laura Josepher, who's directing the play at Stages Repertory Theatre. "And they're showing her how to walk with her hand on her hip and how to use her eyes. There's this vision of Mae West becoming Mae West, and the idea that that's possibly where she got it from."
The play doesn't just portray West's life; it weaves her story with another one taking place in the present day. Charlie and Jo, two introverts obsessed with West, meet at the actress's grave on the anniversary of her birth. A quirky romance develops, and, says Josepher, "in the course of the play and them telling the stories of why they admire Mae West, we get the story of Mae's life."
Dirty Blonde premiered in New York in 1999 and earned five Tony nominations, including a best play nod to writer Claudia Shear. The New York Times wrote that it was "hands down the best new American play of the season."
One reason for its success is West's continuing ability to fascinate. "It's 2003 and we're still talking about her," says Josepher. "She used sex and power in this era when that just wasn't done That appeals to people. It certainly appeals to me as a woman."
And the controversial dame has definitely influenced future generations. West's habit of "finding what's hip but not mainstream and finding a way to mainstream it," as Josepher puts it, is reminiscent of the methods another star uses to create her own ever-evolving persona. But, says Josepher, "Madonna has nothing on Mae West."