Playwright Roger Q. Mason on their 'Pride of Lions'

  • by Jim Gladstone
  • Tuesday March 19, 2024
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(L-R) Sean Prescott as Molasses, Patrick Chico as Marla, Brendan Looney as Gracie in Theatre Rhinoceros' production of 'The Pride of Lions' (photo: Theatre Rhinoceros)
(L-R) Sean Prescott as Molasses, Patrick Chico as Marla, Brendan Looney as Gracie in Theatre Rhinoceros' production of 'The Pride of Lions' (photo: Theatre Rhinoceros)

Just listening to Roger Q. Mason speak is a theatrical experience.

"I started this play almost 10 years ago," said the Los Angeles-based writer in a recent Zoom interview with the Bay Area Reporter about "The Pride of Lions," a sharp, funny and heart-wrenching portrayal of trans folk in 1920s Manhattan, which will have its world premiere at Theatre Rhinoceros next week.

Mason, who described themself as "a Black, Filipinx, plus-sized, gender non-conforming, queer artist of color" leans forward toward the camera, bobbing their distinctive high fade with increasing velocity as they build up verbal steam.

Playwright Roger Q. Mason (photo: Bronwen Sharp)  

"I was living and working amongst the queer performance art community of Chicago," explained Mason, launching into fervored oratory. "They possessed an expansiveness not only of identity, but also of artistic stylistic splendor. That represented a freedom that I've wanted to be a part of. They were dreaming of worlds and ways of telling stories in those worlds that existed outside of binaries, not just gender binaries, but also aesthetic binaries. Identifying with those people, and their expansiveness, gave me permission to be an iconoclastic and experimental writer."

When Mason pauses for a breath, they don't slow their roll, owning the pause with a shoulder shimmy and a snap, before powering on with a parable of revelation.

"When I began writing this play, I was shamefully hiding from a fullness of life that was available to me but was on the other side of self-shaming. But I found the key to my new self —as many queer folks find many things— in a bathroom."

Can I get an "Ahem"?!

(L-R) Sean Prescott and Brendan Looney in Theatre Rhinoceros' production of 'The Pride of Lions' (photo: Theatre Rhinoceros)  

Seeing a sign
"Oh no, honey," declaimed Mason, wagging a finger and shaking their head, "I'm not going to tell you that story. I'm not going to tell you the story you're thinking of!"

Instead, Mason described the first time they came across an all-gender public restroom, imbuing the tale with all the fervor and passion of a cleric extolling the miracle of the burning bush.

"At that point, I had lived outside of the gender binary for three decades, with no identity or language to define or celebrate myself. For over thirty years I'd been constantly censored and punished for being different than 'how boys were supposed to be.'"

"I had suddenly found this place where I could belong and live my bodily truth. It was so affirming, and it started me on a journey toward not only feeling proud of who I am but feeling comfortable enough to express that externally through how I identify and dress and perform myself."

"From there came the fertile confidence to embark on emboldening the next generation to live in their fullness without even the beginnings of the shame and self-censorship that play and beleaguered my journey until that encounter with the loo."

Playwright Roger Q. Mason (photo: Theatre Rhinoceros)  

Style and substance
While long on flair, Mason's conversation, like their writing, is in no way short on sincerity. Eloquent sass is the playwright's love language. It's an effective tongue with which to lash the status quo, which Mason says has long been a goal of their artmaking.

In "Pride of Lions," Mason challenges entrenched binaries by presenting a group of queens with an unusually diverse range of gender expressions. Mason also complicates the historical trope of cops versus queers by exploring nuances of power and sexuality and finding more range and complexity in individuals' experience than in institutionally imposed perceptions.

"I'm a historical revisionist at heart," Mason explains. "My 10th-grade history teacher took away our state-selected history textbook and gave us Howard Zinn's 'A People's History of the United States.' Understanding and appreciating the distance between what political authorities want you to learn and what actually happened, you learn the biases that are used to subjugate certain populations and maintain the power and influence of others. That's exciting to me as a dramatist."

Over the course of the ten years in which they've developed "The Pride of Lions," Mason, who has degrees from Princeton, Middlebury, and Northwestern, has written nine other plays, including a trio of pieces investigating Abraham Lincoln's queerness.

"My dream project," Mason says, "Is about the glory of Little Richard and about how hard he had to fight to make his way into American cultural history."

Expanding audiences
Mason hopes that the premiere production of "The Pride of Lions," directed by talented Rhino regular Ely Sonny Orquiza, not only draws the company's traditional theatergoing audience but also attracts ticket buyers who feel strong connections to the drag scene, to dance (the show has strong movement elements), and to American history (In addition to Howard Zinn's overarching influence, Mason says this show owes a particular debt to historian George Chauncey's seminal book, "Gay New York").

"There's a lot here for many different people," said Mason, ramping up into a final interview soliloquy. "All of my plays tend to function on a multiplicity of levels that will attract different audiences, because they center around very simple human questions, but surround them with a plethora of perspectives and modes of storytelling. And that's what always draws the crowd to come and see what the Roger Q. Mason experience is all about."

'The Pride of Lions,' through April 21. $17.50-$25. Theatre Rhinoceros, 4229 18th Street. (415) 552-4100.

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