Laura shook all over. She couldn't talk except to repeat the other girl's name over and over, as if she were in a trance. Neither of them heard the phone ring, felt the chill of the rainy night, knew of anything except each other."
Author Ann Bannon published these words in 1959's I Am a Woman, one of her many mass-market, pulp-fiction paperbacks about lesbians. Bannon's books promised sex, sleaze, and depravity, with prurient cover art that suggested as much: one woman giving another a back massage, a butch lesbian dangling a cigarette while a blond bombshell lifts her shirt, a close-up profile of a woman whose lips are an inch away from a tastefully nude, miniature beauty posed below the text, "Suddenly they were alone on an island of forbidden bliss."
"Forbidden" is right. Bannon's literary career launched in the gray flannel '50s — a time of postwar prosperity, morning cocktails, and unprecedented freedoms, unless you happened to be black, gay, or female. Lesbians were especially shunned in closets that wouldn't fully open for decades, and Bannon herself spent 27 tragic years in a difficult marriage to a man. The period's lesbian books were plentiful but crudely moralistic, charting the downfalls or hetero conversions of their supposedly misguided characters.
The Beebo Brinker Chronicles
The Beebo Brinker Chronicles, September 6 to 29 at Kutumba Theatre Project at Galleria Studio Theatre, 2542B E. Sunrise Blvd., Fort Lauderdale; $25; 954-646-1000; facebook.com/kutumbatheatreproject
By contrast, Bannon's novels, despite the lecherous, publisher-dictated covers, provided narratives that expressed true love and tenderness between women. They acted as an indispensable mirror for lesbian readers at a time when their emotions and sexual impulses were relegated to the shadows, ultimately earning Bannon the enduring title of "queen of lesbian pulp fiction."
"Her first book was the second-best-selling paperback of 1957, which is fascinating to me — that a lesbian story in 1957 would be the book women were stuffing between their mattresses and hiding in kitchen cabinets," says Kim Ehly, who is directing the Florida premiere of The Beebo Brinker Chronicles, Kate Moira Ryan and Linda S. Chapman's stage adaptation of Bannon's work that premiered off-Broadway in 2007.
Named for Beebo Brinker, a butch lesbian from Bannon's franchise, the play condenses material from at least three books from Bannon's canon into a work that channels the angst, love, scandal, and community that the novels evoked.
Doug Wright, the award-winning playwright of I Am My Own Wife, called the play "a valuable slice of gay and lesbian history" and remarked on its "keen sociology." It charts the relationship of Laura (Blaze Powers) and Beth (Sandi M. Stock), who meet in their college sorority and part ways for different lives — and sexual orientations — before meeting up years later at the Cellar, a legendary gay bar in Greenwich Village.
"It really explains how the community is to this day," Ehly says. "I think there's a lot of dependence on alcohol, a lot of events that revolve around alcohol, and I think that's because of the hiding that took place years ago and still exists."
Because of the nature of the source material's meretricious prose — from which the playwrights often borrowed verbatim — it took the actors awhile to get past the luridness and plumb the nuance.
"The first time I read it, I was like, this script is very strange," recalls Niki Fridh, who plays Beebo Brinker. "Not so much the stories but how it was written. It comes off as so soap opera, so melodramatic. When I read it the second time and took a different kind of slant on it, I was like, this can be really awesome and very realistic. And beautifully written."
"I believe in grounding everything in honesty," Ehly says. "So even a comedy that's a little further out there has to be based in honesty. We're not anywhere near camp, as far as my eye can see. There's a lot of depth to these characters. They have real struggles."
Ehly purposely avoided reading Bannon's novels because she wanted to inject her own tone in the piece, but she encouraged her actors to absorb them for context. "They gave me so much source information on Beth and my relationship with Laura and on why she was the way she was and how that affected the future outcome of what goes down," says Stock. "It was invaluable."
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The Beebo Brinker Chronicles is the sophomore production from Ehly's company, Kutumba Theatre Project, and it's the first adult production in an unusual venue, the 80-seat Fort Lauderdale Children's Theatre space in the Galleria Mall. Ehly sees some similarities between Beebo and her own play, Baby GirL, Kutumba's inaugural production from 2012. That also dealt with a young lesbian's sexual awakening.
"They're both about living your life truthfully and how you are rewarded when you do that and how are you not rewarded when you don't," she says. Like the minimalist set design of Baby GirL, the Beebo Brinker set will be similarly austere, though Ehly is having a blast with the retro costume designs, with materials donated by Vintage Diversity in Fort Lauderdale.
Ehly says that even though gays and lesbians have become more accepted by society, Bannon's characters haven't lost any of their impact, and some things haven't changed.
"There's a scene in The L Word when they did a family tree of who slept with who, and it's very similar to the things that Beebo talks about when she has a monologue about the women's culture and how that operates. [The play] is extremely relevant."