|© Ron Glow|
Move over, Dame Edna, there’s a new gurl In town!
by Stephen Mosher
There are some performers, some artists, some stars so larger than life, so original, so indelible as to require only one name. Cher. Halston. Madonna. Picasso. Liza. Prince.
Leola is one of the artists in residence at Manhattan’s prestigious The Green Room 42, inside the Yotel on 42nd Street. Another is Frances Ruffelle, Tony Award winner for the original production of Les Misérables, so these ladies are in great company. The Green Room 42 is ostensibly a cabaret room but Lady Land! Is an award winning solo play created by Will Nolan. In as much as Barry Humphries is the man who discovered Dame Edna, Will Nolan is the man who discovered Leola, a 72 year old redneck who came out late in life, leaving Gus, her husband of 42 years, to find her true self with a little help from her two greatest inspirations, Jesus and Kelly Clarkson. Leola came into the light during Nolan’s sketch comedy days, when he was working with a troupe called Naked Dog Walking. Now and then the newly gay septuagenarian would make an appearance in the comedy shows but as her popularity grew, Mr. Nolan realized that this force of nature he had created was on a path all her own, until Lady Land became a one-person play he was performing all over New York and New Jersey. The demand for Leola grew and the duo found themselves as far west as Portland, Oregon and then smack dab in God’s country at the Greensboro Fringe Festival and the Atlanta Fringe Festival. For two years in a row the Flying Solo Festival in New York named Lady Land the best of the festival. That’s when The Green Room came a calling. They asked Leola to bring Lady Land to their theater for a sit down and she said Sweet Baby Jesus, Yes!
The show Lady Land is a series of six new healing sermons from Leola, so every time she sets foot on stage the audience is exposed to a brand new play. In these plays Leola shares, to hilarious effect, the experience of discovering her sexuality at an age of advanced glamor. She discusses her best friend and ex-husband Gus and their careers working at the Piggly Wiggly (she as manager of the deli and he as aisle clean up). Leola preaches the importance of love, of following one’s bliss and of being a follower of Sister Kelly Clarkson. She proudly announces that she is a redneck, that she is a LESBIAN (!) and that everyone can benefit from some group therapy in a cabaret theater. AND at each performance one lucky audience member takes home a gently used lipstick! These healing sermons have different themes seen through the framework of Leola’s Jesus loving life and voyage of self-discovery. On February 1 I saw Lady Land! (The Coming Out Origin Cabaret of a Jesus-Loving, Senior Citizen Redneck Lesbian Diva!). On April 11 audiences were treated to Deeper Into Lady Land! (Or The Gospel According to Kelly Clarkson!). For NYC Pride on June 13 I will be there for Hooray For Lady Land! (Gay History For Straight People!) On September 12 I will be front and center for Grab Me By The Lady Land! (Putting the #Me In #Metoo!). October 24th will find folks enjoying Throw Mama From My Lady Land! (Shakin’ Off The Haters!). And what is the holiday season without the December 5th presentation of Christmas In Lady Land!
I’ve been watching Leola come into her own for a few years and I can honestly say that I try to make every show she does. What Mr. Nolan has done here is to take drag in a direction that is unique, that is new, that is his own. A lot of people have been sold a bill of goods that drag is about being superficial and nasty. There are a lot of drag artists out there whom I admire who make beauty and happiness, and I love them. But the creation of this wonderful woman spreading love, joy and a message that we should live our best lives, being authentic to ourselves seems to be especially welcome at this time in our lives. There’s a lot of unhappiness in the world right now, in this country right now. Gay people and women are fighting to keep our rights and Leola is a gay person and a woman, telling us that we can continue to be who we are and live how we like. And that is a heck of an important message to hear, and one that makes us happy. I know I’m not alone in this estimation because every single time I sit in the audience of a Leola show I am treated to waves of positive energy, I am given the gift of looking at the grinning faces of strangers being bonded together by art, comedy, laughter and love. I am awed by Leola’s ability to fill a not particularly small cabaret theater with a drag act that is neither glamorous nor bitchy but that is hilarious, timely, touching and poignant. Leola’s connection to her audience (whom she refers to as disciples) is a strong and beautiful bond, the kind inspired by the great one-named icons and legends. One of those disciples, in fact, declared her to be 'Dame Edna’s hillbilly cousin giving a Ted Talk.'
Now, in this day and age, what could be better?
Lady Land! runs about 75 minutes with no intermission. Find the list of scheduled performances at the Green Room 42 website and follow Leola on Instagram @leolasladyland.
Read more of Stephen's reviews at Hotchka.com.